The battle to reclaim my flow is on, and it starts with a mental move to be more watchful of myself online
Each athletic experience is a bit of a battle. Human against lactic acid buildup. Human against competitor. Human against their mind.
My first-ever spin class memorably captured this. By what felt like the 10th climb segment, my legs had grown weary and my sweat seemingly translucent. The music pounded, almost inside my head, and I grew attached to the idea that I wouldn’t–not today–slow down. It was by the strength of my determination urging me not to quit peddling that I finished the class.
The battle was just as psychological as it was physical.
In their book “The Art of Running Faster,” Julian Goater and Don Melvin list psychology among their six components of fitness. In fact among the other five—speed, suppleness, strength, stamina and skill—they describe psychology as “the most important factor of all. If you put 10 equally fit athletes on the starting line, the one with the best mental state will win.”
The internet affects us psychologically. What about our flow and fitness?
To cut it short, finding a study that directly peers into the effect of social media and internet use on athletic performance has proven difficult. While there is some material on whether or not #fitspiration posts are helpful or hurtful and how professional athletes now handle the extra pressure of meme culture, there is scant material available on how affected we joggers, spinners and the like are being put off our respective games by our internet habits.
One study however that trekked in the direction of finding a relationship analyzed time-stamped tweets for 112 players in the NBA from 2009 to 2016 and assessed their performance the following day—with points scored, rebounds, minutes played per game, turnovers, fouls and shooting accuracy as their metrics.
“They found that late-night tweeting was associated with less time played, fewer points scored and fewer rebounds the following day. Shooting accuracy seemed particularly affected, as players made baskets at 1.7 percentage points less following late-night social media activity.”
Not the most conclusive evidence to suggest a direct causative link. After all, staying up late in itself would affect your performance, wouldn’t it?
But it’s not all about the numbers
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a specialist in the psychology of sport with over 15 books, writes in Psychology Today that “the biggest area in which athletes are finding more and more difficulty is in the simple act of focusing.”
In another article, he discusses what he calls an athlete’s attentional field, or “everything inside of you, such as thoughts, emotions and physical responses, and everything outside of you, including sights and sounds, on which you could focus.”
Focus here is the ability to concentrate on things within your attentional field that allow you to perform an activity well. In the chamber of my first-ever spin class, this was the ceaseless beat of the EDM music; during my runs, it’s the mental metronome keeping track of my cadence.
So where does the internet come in?
During my best runs, my focus is sharp, my thoughts pinned on my mental metronome. All things outside my skull are relegated into a secondary plane, and I’m caught in a splendid flow. Inevitably, with every run being different, the torrent of news in my feed or the latest happenings in my online group chats sometimes melt through my focus, and turn flow into battle. What was once a mind meditating on the gentle taps of my feet on the pavement becomes an echo chamber of opinions and arguments—a mental brawl damned to last the whole run.
Enter Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer and computer philosophy writer who recently appeared on Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma.” His popular recent work, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” reflects on our mass addiction to technology and the network effects keeping us locked into it.
In one argument, he says, “What might have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on titanic scale.” While he writes with urgency, his words are aimed at shaking us into awareness: We don’t want to shut the internet out completely, but we do need to evaluate our relationship with it.
Especially when it’s affecting my run times!
Nurturing psychological fitness is nurturing fitness
“A study from UC San Diego and Yale found that people who clicked on about four times as many links as the average person, or who liked twice as many posts, reported worse mental health than average in a survey.”
I borrowed that right out of the Facebook Newsroom, pointed there by Jaron Lanier of course.
And I do so with a similar spirit to that of the authors, David Ginsberg, director of research, and Moira Burke, research scientist at Facebook when they note, “We don’t have all the answers, but given the prominent role social media now plays in many people’s lives, we want to help elevate the conversation.”
Among the many conversations now being had, one view came to me: that the effects of our internet habits are lingering and do not simply dissolve during exercise.
While I feel incapable of unraveling my mental brawl while on my afternoon run, I can remain consciously on-guard ahead of time in my online excursions.
Flow in exercise begins with flow in general
Perhaps no exercise—neither running nor spinning—is the silver bullet in which all the worries of the day wash away. Rather, exercise is another activity in a conscious process where I’m taking needed breaks, feeling out how information is making me feel, and being deliberate with my focus.
As has been pointed out, falling into rabbit holes and stepping into the barrage of recommendations—to purchase, to watch, to upgrade—which dot online experience, make it difficult to remain so deliberate.
While I won’t be deleting Facebook or chucking my mobile any time soon, I will be watchful of how what I’m consuming is making me feel. After all, this online activity sits atop a whole bevy of experience—work, relationships and the entire world—pressing a whole weight of stress on us at all times.
In that deliberate state, rather than finding flow in running, I will meet my runs in flow.