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The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese philosophical text that speaks to the way of nature and how best to be in harmony with its energy. Specifically, “wu-wei” is the path to harmony through “non-action.” This concept emphasizes the importance of aligning oneself with the natural flow of the world, rather than trying to impose one’s will on it.
Modern psychologists have likened this to the flow state in sports. In running, flow is something many seek to tap into each time we go out the door. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the state of optimal experience that occurs when a person is fully immersed in an activity, and their skills and challenges are in balance.
According to Ruth Croft, last year’s winner of the Western States 100, “[flow] is about letting go of intentions, expectations, and our innate human desire to always be in control. It’s about complete surrender, where there is no internal or physical fight. It’s being exactly where you need to be at that moment.” Understanding these concepts can help improve your performance on and off the trail.
Flow and Clutch States in Running
Understanding optimal experiences has been an area of interest in sport and exercise since the 1990s. A 2021 study in the UK that was published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise explored the optimal experiences of “flow” and “clutch” states, and examined the self-regulatory processes that promote these optimal running experiences.
The authors of the study defined flow as “a state of optimal experience characterized by a loss of self-consciousness and complete immersion in the activity, resulting in feelings of enjoyment, focus, and full involvement.” Participants described experiencing flow as “gliding,” “cruising,” or running “automatically.”
On the other hand, the authors defined clutch states as “occurring during challenging phases of running, leading to metacognitive experiences that include difficulty, confidence, satisfaction, and the need to adopt specific strategies to control thoughts and performance.” Clutch states are a relatively new concept in sport and exercise psychology literature, and first emerged through research exploring psychological states underlying elite-level performance in sport.
“Although flow and clutch states are both experiences that happen during runs (and at different times in the same run), a key difference between these states is that the rewards of flow tend to come during the activity, whereas the positive outcomes that arise from the goal-striving clutch state tend to arise after the runner has achieved their goal,” says Patricia Jackman, the study’s lead author. “Clutch states, therefore, involve high effort, but this is valued if the runner achieves their goal.”
Basically, clutch states differ from flow states in that they involve higher perceptions of effort, more intense concentration, and tend to be enjoyable after the experience, whereas flow feels more effortless and enjoyable—both physically and mentally—during an activity.
Though both flow and clutch states can happen during a run, at different times, the key difference between these states is that the rewards of flow tend to come during the activity, whereas the positive outcomes that arise from the goal-striving clutch state tend to arise after the runner has achieved their goal. Clutch states, therefore, involve high effort, but this is valued if the runner achieves their goal.
The study, led by Dr. Patricia Jackman, an Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Lincoln, was the first ever to specifically focus on optimal experiences in running. The authors recruited 16 runners, including eight female and eight male participants, with an average age of 28 years. A unique aspect of this study was that it used “event-focused” interviews, whereby runners who felt they had a positive, rewarding run were interviewed less than 24 hours after finishing.
Here, researchers interviewed participants about their psychological state during the entire run, with participants being asked to identify points where their run was positive or rewarding. Using this innovative method offered fresh insights into their experiences during these activities.
What Facilitates Flow?
The study revealed that intrinsic experiential motives such as variety, exploration, novelty, restoration, relatedness, and autonomy, were key factors that facilitated flow states. During flow, runners directed their attention outwards, toward the route and others, while paying less attention to checking in on information about the run on their devices (e.g., pace on watch), which enabled them to remain “switched off” from the act of running. These runners also experienced a low perception of effort, felt fresh, and were free from discomfort during flow.
“Open goals” were one of several non-specific goal types that facilitated flow. An open goal is a type of goal that does not have a specific endpoint or outcome. An example of an open goal might be to run for 30 minutes without any specific target pace or distance in mind. Runners often set effort-based or “range goals,” allowing flexibility and lacking a single end-point like a desired mileage or pace. Therefore, other non-specific goals can also facilitate flow states.
The study suggests that having intrinsic experiential motives for a run, while setting non-specific goals (i.e., goals that do not have a single, measurable outcome, like “have fun!”) before an activity, could promote flow.
Runners were motivated to continue flow due to the perceived ease and pleasure experienced, aided by both active and involuntary distraction. These findings have implications for individuals, teams, and organizations committed to improving the running experience, by offering new ideas on how to promote flow states.
Shifting from non-specific goals to specific goals, from motives concerned with the running experience to those focused on achievement, were critical in transitioning from flow to clutch states.
During clutch states, runners are primarily driven by intrinsic motivation to achieve specific goals, although some may also be motivated by external recognition [i.e., sharing on social media]. In this state, runners actively self-regulate, using self-talk and managing their running techniques to reach goals and increase confidence and satisfaction.
Unlike flow, affective responses [i.e. the amount of pleasure generated in the monitoring process] during clutch states are often less pleasant, and runners are less likely to engage in active distraction, remaining focused on their goals. While the effort required during clutch states may be perceived as difficult, it is valued if it leads to achieving goals.
Flow into Clutch
According to the study, flow states experienced by runners during training runs were often disrupted before they could be completed. However, this did not diminish the rewarding nature of the experience, as all runners were able to achieve their goals. While some runners transitioned into a clutch state after flow, this transition was not immediate, and none reported transitioning from a clutch state to flow.
The study’s authors explored the role of metacognitive planning in facilitating flow and clutch states during running. They found that task-specific strategies, and the ability to set and pursue specific goals, were crucial factors in achieving and maintaining a clutch state. When the runners encountered challenges—like keeping up the pace toward the end of a hard run or staying strong when running felt difficult on an uphill section— having appropriate mental techniques was critical in helping them respond effectively and continue to strive towards achieving their goal.
What It Means
These findings have important implications for recreational runners, coaches, teams, practitioners, and organizations dedicated to enhancing the running performance of racing experiences. The results demonstrate that setting non-specific goals, while allowing for goal flexibility, can promote flow and enhance the overall running experience for participants. For example, trail runners could focus on enjoying their run and not be concerned with checking pace.
The study suggests that being able to “switch off” during a run can be helpful, which includes listening to music, having a conversation, letting one’s mind wander, and noticing the scenery. Although those tactics might not be conducive to hitting a personal best, they’re likely to help a runner have a pleasant experience.
While setting specific goals can lead to a positive and rewarding experience in the form of a clutch state, runners should be aware that pursuing a specific goal may require active self-regulation strategies. Because clutch states are more effortful and increase how hard running feels, it’s important for runners to find a way to redirect their attention away from the physical sensations when they are working hard, or else the run might start to feel overly challenging. In these cases, runners can benefit from using mental strategies that help redirect their attention, like using motivational self-talk, relaxing their breathing, or bringing their attention to form (e.g., lifting the knees, pumping the arms, relaxing the body).
Given that pursuing a specific goal may require active self-regulation strategies, runners can benefit from adopting mental techniques to help redirect their attention away from the physical sensations and facilitate achieving their objectives.
“In the past, people have typically regarded flow as the ‘optimal’ state, especially in sport performance,” explained Dr. Jackman. “But this research, alongside our previous work, illustrates that it’s a little more complex than that. Although flow can be a blissful experience, most of us probably recognize that sometimes it’s rewarding after we finish a difficult run or overcome a challenge. On these occasions, the experience, which we term a “clutch state,” might not be pleasant in the moment, because we feel we’re working hard, but drawing on appropriate mental strategies to achieve the goals we desire can lead to us feeling like we’ve had a positive experience. Therefore, the clutch state might be a useful concept for us to think about, especially when we need to dig deep out there on the trails.”
Ben Pryor (Choctaw) is a contributing writer for several national and regional publications, including Native News Online and Indian Country Today. He has graduate degrees in Political Science (American Politics) and Philosophy (Philosophy of Language). His writing interests include running, politics, and the environment.