When you’re “in the zone,” it’s a feeling that’s hard to define but one you never want to lose. Everything clicks, you’re performing at your absolute best and you seem lose yourself in the moment.
In sports and exercise psychology, that sensation of optimal experience is called “flow” — and it takes mental toughness to find it amid internal and external distractions.
The benefits of working out with flow
Researchers define flow as “the intense experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity, which can be physical or mental. Attention is fully invested in the task at hand and the person functions at her or his fullest capacity.”
Working out with flow makes you feel better about the experience overall — and that sensation will drive you back to the gym in the hopes of repeating it.
“A positive psychological state during exercise is associated with reports of higher pleasure and enjoyment,” says Dr. Panteleimon Ekkekakis, a professor in the Iowa State University Department of Kinesiology. “In turn, repeated experiences of more pleasure and enjoyment during exercise have been linked to more physical activity participation in the long run.”
We all want to reach that level when we’re exercising in the gym, but how do we do it?
“You need two ingredients to increase the chances of experiencing flow,” Ekkekakis says. “One, an individual who is skilled, and two, a relatively high level of challenge, such as an exercise that is neither too easy nor impossibly hard.”
Finding flow requires mental toughness
To achieve an optimal workout experience, you have to employ the mental toughness to get out of your head. If you’re distracted by self-consciousness, or if you don’t have a clear goal, you’re going to struggle.
Here are other factors that can help raise the chances of achieving flow while you’re working out:
1. Have clear, measurable goals and concentrate on each task required to reach them. According to researchers, motivation and commitment are two characteristics that appear to contribute to flow. And it’s easier to be more motivated if you have a clear target.
2. Push yourself in the gym, but don’t attempt anything that seems impossible. “The most effective method to develop self-efficacy — the belief in your ability to achieve your goals — is to try something and succeed,” Ekkekakis says.
When trying a new workout, start at the beginner level and progress from there. This approach will make you more confident and give you a greater sense of control. Both of those seem to be important factors in achieving flow, researchers say.
3. Stay positive, no matter what. Positivity, researchers say, is another key factor in flow, because it can make you calmer, help you be more open to challenges and add to your sense of control. If negative thoughts try to creep in, think of this advice from 2018 Gold’s Gym Challenge winner David Le: “Everyone’s too busy with their own workout to have time to judge anyone else.”
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