Finding Your Flow

When I was in my twenties, I was a self-confessed rock hugger. Every morning and every evening, I’d head to the local crags and pass hour after hour lost in the mental and physical challenges of bouldering. Work was chosen on proximity to climbing locations, girlfriends on their ability to spot and dyno, and holidays meant sleeping in caves and forests to make the most of Stanage Edge or Fontainebleau. Then one day, I stopped hugging rocks. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how; it just happened. 

Fast forward a decade and road cycling became my life. Rain, wind, and snow made no difference to me – if my legs could turn the pedals, I was out on my bike. And, as if out of the blue, getting up and out to churn the miles lost its appeal. The roads revealed grit and oil, the wind would hammer my body, and the rain would freeze my very core. I was bored.

Hello mountain bike. Reading the terrain, mastering techniques, and searching for the perfect singletrack consumed me. Average speeds, power output, and training schedules soon became a distant memory. Out on the trails was what it was all about – how could I have wasted all those years suffering on tarmac?

What keeps happening to me?

Why can my life’s passion so easily become something that I used to do?

The answer is Flow.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (kudos if you can pronounce his name) studied and wrote extensively on the subject of optimal experience; in a nutshell, he’s the leading researcher on ‘flow’ - that magical state of mind where we are totally absorbed in what we are doing, where time passes in an instant, day-to-day worries can’t enter our minds, and that special place where we attain total enjoyment.

In his bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience he outlines five essential elements required to produce flow:

  1. A skill.

  2. Rules.

  3. A goal.

  4. A way of obtaining feedback.

  5. The ability to concentrate and interact at a level matching your skills.

Without these five things, flow cannot be obtained. We might gain pleasure, such as when we’re having a beer watching cats do backflips on YouTube, but we’ll never enter the state of flow.

If we’re racing, time trialling, or cycle touring we tick all the boxes for obtaining flow, but if we find that our goals no longer stretch us, for whatever reason, we find ourselves awash in a world where we struggle to find the motivation to just get out there and do it.

For me, goals are the answer and have formed the missing piece in the jigsaw of motivation and enjoyment. My bouldering reached a point where each technical grade of problem took longer to reach and so eventually, I plateaued. It’s no surprise that when something else (academia) came along that offered new achievable challenges, my focus switched to that something else. Likewise, when I found myself living in an area with no time trialling, road riding had no purpose – I had no goal to reach.

Today, mountain biking still provides goals - whether they are gradings and times on downhill runs or racing other riders in local cross-country events. Fortunately, my love of road riding has been rekindled through Strava, which gives me goals and feedback on ride times and climbing segments. Yes, I still enjoy a social ride with a café stop, but now I can get out and ride on my own and it’s no longer a chore – although the weather does have to be perfect!

If you’ve lost your mojo, take a look at your goals and purpose. Maybe entering some local crit races will push you to pursue the next rider category or taking part in a local time trial series will focus your energies on improving your times, and if all else fails, there’s always Strava and the pursuit of a local KOM.

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