I just finished reading through "The Happiness Hypothesis" by Johnathan Haidt (book, website). Quick overview:
The book basically looks at what it takes to be satisfied, to be happy with oneself and the life one leads. The author melds philosophy with psychology, neuroscience, and other areas to develop a sort of overall view of what we as human beings need in order to live a satisfying life.
Seriously, it's actually worthwhile, and not as dull or dry as I probably make it out to be.
Anyway, I bring this book up because there is an entire section entitled "Finding Flow". The basic idea is that there is a state of total immersion in a task from which a high level of satisfaction can be derived. This state is called "flow" (or, in more colloquial terms, "being in the zone").
We all know this state; it is a point where the mind and body seem to be working in perfect harmony, where our actions seem effortless, smooth, fluid, seamless. According to research done on the subject, this state is usually brought about when we engage in an activity or task that is challenging, but within the realm of our current capabilities. Often the activity is physical in nature, but there is still a level of thought involved in it. We become fully engaged in the activity at hand, physically and mentally, we receive feedback from our actions, and are able to capitalize on that feedback.
(For more detail on "flow", go here.)
I know I have experienced this in various activities, both at work and at play. It truly is an awesome state of being, however short-lived it may be. I most often experienced this state in races; the feeling of timelessness, of solid, almost laser-like focus on the task at hand, feeling the burning in the lungs and muscles, but in a detached sort of way. And, more often than not, those situations would be my best races.
According to the research done on this subject, one of the key ingredients to attaining this state of flow on a more consistent basis is PRACTICE. You have to go through lots of hours of non-flow working on the activity to attain those precious moments. In other words, you gotta get out there and run. But don't just randomly lay down miles; you need to have purpose to your running, you need to engage your mind. In other words, one of the key points to work on is developing a stronger connection between your mind and your body. Listen to it, pay attention to the language your muscles, your heart, your lungs, speak to you. It's not just bursts of pain or periods of discomfort. It's also satisfaction at being worked, put to use with a clear purpose and goal in mind.
Training shouldn't be simply about trying to put in enough volume to be physically prepared for a race. It's about having a purpose, a goal, towards which you work; a higher ideal to strive for and pursue. To develop your ability to find your state of flow, you need purpose, challenge, and confidence. You have to put in the time developing your body and your mind.
And that's one of the most important aspects of training. Having a purpose for your workout, and then spending that time developing the connections between the mind and body, the conscious and unconscious. In order to develop these connections, this sense of purpose and confidence, you have to practice it, and you have to be consistent, and you have to work it every day. Eventually you will get into a virtuous cycle, where your training feeds your goals, which will in turn feed your training, and every time you head out the door and down the street, you will have confidence in yourself, a sense of what you're doing and why, and then you will find that satisfaction that motivates us.