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Science Is Trying to Decode the Runner’s High

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All serious runners have experienced it: You spend long enough on the trail and time starts to slow down, conscious thought vanishes, and you reach complete unity between your actions and your awareness. We call it being “in the zone” or experiencing a "runner’s high," but to researchers it’s the Flow state—the optimal state of consciousness, where you feel your best and perform your best. (What Makes You a Runner?)

It’s not just runners: athletes, artists, executives, scientists, innovators, and pretty much the top performers in any field that requires conscious acumen are successful because they are able to tap into Flow states. This thread behind success and innovation is the reason Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler co-founded the Flow Genome Project, an organization committed to mapping the genome of Flow to decode optimal human performance—and share the secret with the world.

Here’s what the Flow Genome project knows so far: There are a handful of neurochemicals that contribute to the overall Flow experience. It starts with norepinephrine, or adrenaline, which makes us alert. Dopamine then kicks in to start pattern recognition and help your brain realize the path you’re on is correct. Endorphins then flood to keep us from feeling pain and quitting, followed by a jolt of anandamide to prompt lateral thinking, or solving problems through an indirect or creative approach. (Those are just a few of The 20 Most Important Hormones for Your Health.)

“The neurochemicals and the brain wave state give us access to solutions that we don’t normally have in a normal waking state of consciousness and let us connect dots that we wouldn’t normally otherwise see,” explained Wheal.

The biggest breakthroughs in science, the greatest athletic feats, and the most inspiring and creative innovations are all created thanks to pros peaking in the Flow state.

So how exactly does one reach this exalted state? That’s what science is trying to figure out. As far as athletics go, research from the University of Lincoln in the UK have found 10 factors that influence Flow: focus, preparation, motivation, arousal, thoughts and emotions, confidence, environmental conditions, feedback (internal or external), performance, and team interactions. Depending on the type of interaction, these factors can facilitate, prevent, or disrupt your trance. (Also read about the 20 Foods that Can Ruin Your Workout.)

How you reach Flow state, though, depends on your natural inclinations. Some people feel most at ease completely alone with no distractions, while others find comfort in the energy of a crowd of people. Get a sense of what Flow environment suits you best with the Flow Genome Project’s Flow Profile. Or just start pounding the pavement—that runner's high is certainly less elusive!

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