IN PARTNERSHIP WITH UNDER ARMOUR
FLOW: A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION AND A MENTAL STATE. SOMETHING THAT ALL RUNNERS ASPIRE TO, OR HOPE TO FEEL. THE SENSE OF EFFORTLESSNESS, EUPHORIA, LIGHTNESS.
In 1975, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the phrase “flow state” in a paper he published as part of his lifelong work in the study of happiness and creativity. Mihaly had become fascinated by artists who would get deeply absorbed in their craft and often described the feeling as similar to a current of water carrying them effortlessly along.
Mihaly theorised that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow – when they are in the moment and completely absorbed with what they are doing. He also believed that we can all achieve a flow state in whatever we are doing.
Being in the flow in running
For television presenter Rachel Stringer, running has been a key part of her life from a very early age. Her relationship with running has taken the form of two distinct eras, both of which had their experiences of flow.
“My initial relationship with running was all about competition,” says Rachel. “There is a photograph of me competing at school and beating a rival. I remember the feeling of crossing the line first and that really was a pivotal moment for me.”
Indeed, that experience helped to generate the intrinsic motivation for running that studies show is an essential ingredient in achieving the flow state. “Running became a central part of my life. As a youngster I wanted to be the best I could be as a track athlete and I realistically thought that I would be an elite performer.” In fact, Rachel followed the path that would help her to achieve her dream, being mentored by top class athletes and coaches throughout her teenage years.
In the end, being a middle-distance star was not Rachel’s destiny. She moved to London and took up the challenge of building a career in television. But running never left her life. “Now I run much more for the enjoyment and the community,” says Rachel.
“And the times I find myself in a flow state are when I am running on the streets. I regularly leave my home in north London at the end of the day and run down to the River Thames. I love those evening runs when I put on some music in my headphones and I feel like I am just flying along the path next to the river.”
For podcaster and author Adrienne Herbert, the feeling of flow starts at dawn. Adrienne’s relationship with running started after she was forced to give up a career as a professional entertainer. At that time, running was an escape from all the pressures of llife: caring for her newborn baby, and also her husband, who was recovering from a serious illness. “Initially I would just run for a few minutes at a time,” says Adrienne. “I needed to escape all the demands at home and running was the most convenient way to do that.”
As the domestic pressure eased, Adrienne was able to run more. And then she made an impulse decision to take part in the London Marathon. At that point Adrienne hadn’t run more than 10 miles in one go and only had 12 weeks to get ready. The marathon was tough, but Adrienne learned the important lesson central to her latest book, The Power Hour: “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
I put on some music in my headphones and I feel like I am just flying along
Now, with many more long-distance races and years of training under her belt, Adrienne still runs for the freedom it gives her. “Very often I run before sunrise,” Adrienne says. “I love running when the rest of the world is asleep. This is my time and I know that no one expects anything of me for those precious miles.”
It is this feeling that Doug Smiley, Under Armour Senior Product Line Manager High Performance Run, heard about time and time again. Doug and his team spoke to athletes about the development of a shoe that would require a whole new way of thinking – a shoe that would end up challenging the way runners think about their footwear as an integral part of running in the zone.
With a background that included a huge range of sports from basketball to rowing, Doug initially ran for fitness. In fact, early on his relationship with running wasn’t great. “For a lot of people, running is perceived as a punishment in a lot of sports,” says Doug. But after graduating and starting his career, he realised that running was the activity that he was drawn to and that fitted into his new life the best.
As an experienced runner, what does the flow state mean to Doug?
“It’s as if the work and the exertion just dissipate,” Doug explains. “It’s really this absence of sensation, where running is not a conscious thought of ‘Move the left leg to go’ or thinking about whether I should be striking more mid-foot or fore-foot. It’s just letting your body release and be free. You’re naturally being propelled forward. Your body and mind get free at the same time.”
So how did Doug and his colleagues approach the challenge of designing a shoe that would help athletes get into the flow state?
“The big goal we’re always seeking with all our running products is that euphoric run, where everything clicks and you’re in the zone,” says Doug. “It doesn’t feel like you are working because your body is feeling good and you have an amazing, exhilarating experience.
“That is what we’re going for. But what are the distractions? What are the hurdles that get in the way?”
“It is things like the shoe feeling super heavy on your foot,” Doug continues, “so it feels like you’re doing a lot of work to carry the shoe rather than the shoe doing the work to carry you forward. If you feel like the shoe is a piece of equipment, rather than a natural extension of your body – with a lot of layers and a mechanical feel that creates a really unnatural motion – then you’re always going to be conscious of what your foot is doing.”
To achieve their aim of a shoe that creates no distractions, the Under Armour team worked closely with elite athletes, such as those who make up the Dark Sky Distance team, based in Flagstaff, Arizona. This group of world class middle- and long-distance runners were able to give Doug and his colleagues feedback on prototypes, as well as describe what they would want from a shoe.
Product designers then set about building that ideal shoe – a process that was not without challenges. One of the unusual aspects of the development of what would become the FLOW Velociti Wind was that the team developed a totally new midsole and upper at the same time. This, of course, added complexity to the project, but Doug was clear: to create something entirely different, the team would have to start by answering a challenge unconstrained by the limits often imposed on designers.
In the end, what Doug and his team have developed in the FLOW Velociti Wind is a shoe that breaks conventions. The sole unit is stripped of the rubber outsole to reduce weight and maintain cushioning and responsiveness. Meanwhile, the upper is so thin it is almost transparent and threaded with a system that is like a seatbelt for the foot, which further reduces weight.
Ultimately what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed in the 1970s when he talked about the flow state was nothing new. Since humans have been running, we have found ourselves floating along, with everything in perfect synchronisation. What Under Armour has done with the FLOW Velociti Wind is to develop a shoe that, by removing everything except the essentials, is designed to help runners of every level to achieve a flow state.
For Doug and his team, possibly the best response a runner will have to the shoe is that at the end of the run, they hardly thought about it at all. They were just in a state of flow.
The UA FLOW Velociti Wind is available at ua.com
Under Armour is a Like the Wind Partner for 2021