One late night about 25 years ago, I was driving by myself on I-15 from Salt Lake City back to Idaho Falls, Idaho, when I fell asleep at the wheel. I woke up to the left side of my car sliding along a guardrail. When I later returned to the scene a few days later with a police officer, I could see the indentation and black streak left by my car on the shiny new guardrail. The officer pointed to a small white cross nearby then told me that only a few months ago, a truck driver had also fallen asleep driving, went through the guardrail and fell down onto the road below the overpass. The truck driver died. I didn’t. The guardrail saved my life.
In my last blog post, Coming Clean on My 30-Year Chemical Addiction, I wrote about my experiences with flow to include the “high high’s” I experienced from endurance events like IRONMAN Triathlons, its addictive properties from the neurochemicals released by the body and its potential downsides.
I’ll briefly recap what flow is. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author or Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
The nature of flow is that it is always a positive experience. What can go wrong with flow – at least for me when I was competing in triathlons – was trying to achieve flow states at the expense of other important things like my health, my career and my relationships. For the purposes of brevity, I’ll focus on the negative impacts to my health.
To be clear, I have no regrets about being a triathlete, especially being an IRONMAN triathlete, as triathlon has benefitted me in so many ways to include helping me move past cancer. Reflecting back on my past attempts to achieve flow states in triathlon is helping me figure out new ways (like training in martial arts) to achieve flow states in other activities that boost my health and relationships.
My Flow Experiences with Triathlon
By itself, triathlon is a challenging and demanding sport as it requires participants to train in three different events (swim, bike and run), especially at the IRONMAN distance (2.4-mile swim / 112-mile bike / 26.2-mile run). Triathlons benefit the people who do them as the training and racing develop fitness, reinforce a healthy lifestyle and create feelings of accomplishment (and a common bucket list item). For me, I used the training to lower my stress levels, decrease symptoms of depression & anxiety and maintain a healthy body, especially after being being diagnosed for cancer in January 1995. Triathlon became a way for me prove to myself that although I had cancer, cancer did not have me.
My cancer treatment began with six weeks of radiation therapy. I eventually had to stop exercising because my skin became raw and wept. When I had surgery two weeks after the radiation treatments ended, I was given a 6-inch incision on the front of my right hip that was held together by staples. I then had to lie in bed for a week to partially heal before undergoing more radiation therapy.
I eventually walked out of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD in April 1995. The time period during the latter parts of my treatment was the largest gap I had ever taken without exercise since high school. Of course I wanted to dive right back into exercise and fitness, but I was limited for a few weeks until the staples came out.
I entered my first triathlon (a sprint distance race near Jacksonville, Florida) that summer. I was so very nervous before the race, as I tried to figure out how to set up my transition area and what to wear. I had never even seen a triathlon before except for watching highlights of the IRONMAN in Hawaii on TV. Once my race started, however, my anxiety faded and my focus shifted to simply moving forward. When I crossed the finish line, I was ecstatic. I was now a triathlete.
Triathlon became a powerful motivator for me. I began to crave the highs from the training and especially the racing. I experienced flow (although I could not name it at the time), especially the more I suffered and hurt. I became very good at overriding the hurt and suffering to keep moving forward.
When I moved to Northern Virginia later that summer, I met my neighbor, Phil, who was a longtime triathlete. Phil took me under his wing and taught me about training, transitions, race day nutrition, etc. I did two more races that year. In 1997, Phil talked me into doing IRONMAN Canada with him in the fall. When I finished Canada, I was literally high for a week. I felt so good, and I wanted that feeling again so IRONMAN Triathlon became my focus and my priority.
I kept chasing the highs and set my three primary goals: finish under 9 hours, win an IRONMAN distance race and race as a professional (pro). I eventually broke 9 hours (twice), won 5 IRONMAN distance races (Vineman in 2001, 2007 and Blue Devil Triathlon in 2002, 2003, 2004) and earned my elite license (pro card) in 2007. I had completed 28 IRONMAN distance races by the time I stopped racing in the summer of 2010.
The Downsides of Flow in Triathlon for Me
As I noted in the beginning, flow itself is always a positive experience. The challenge with flow is that in order to keep experiencing flow states with a given activity, your skill level and the challenge level of the activity have to both increase (but not too much all at once). Otherwise, the experience of the activity becomes ordinary.
I began to notice that I didn’t quite get the same high if I had a poor finish time or placing. So I trained harder to go faster. As soon as I achieved a win in a race, my expectation was that I would win again. If I didn’t, I felt disappointment. Even after my first sub-nine hour finish (8:56 at the Blue Devil), it wasn’t enough. I wanted to do it again but even faster. On paper, I thought I could go under 8:30 on the right course and with the right conditions so I trained harder.
In my early 30’s I first began to experience overtraining and overuse injuries: shoulder tendinitis, calf strains, Achilles tendinitis. The injuries would rotate so even if I couldn’t run for a while, I could still swim and bike. I remember waking up and walking down the stairs in my townhouse many, many times where my legs simply hurt. I still trained.
After my best year in 2007, I honestly thought I would continue to get better so I kept training through the fall for an early 2008 marathon. My legs, and especially my hamstrings, began to hurt during all my runs, but, by this point, I had become very good at ignoring pain and discomfort so I kept training. When I ran the marathon in February, I knew I should have stopped at the halfway point because I risked doing long term damage to my right leg, but I was in the lead and wanted the win. I did win the race, but what ultimately resulted that year was adrenal fatigue, severe overtraining and a torn right hamstring. I couldn’t run for many months, but I still managed to train enough through the summer to get in my self-imposed obligatory IRONMAN distance triathlon that fall (albeit with a slow run).
From that point forward, I wasn’t getting faster, only slower. I started incurring more frequent injuries (which interrupted my training and kept me from pursuing longer events) and my body and motivation wouldn’t allow me to train as much as I did in the past. After more than a decade of racing, any increases I might make in skill level were minuscule at best. Essentially, I couldn’t access flow states in triathlon any more. I finally reached a point in the summer of 2010 (after having already completed races), where I had to stop. I distinctly remember being on a training ride with friends riding north on Highway 36 from Boulder. I was struggling to keep up with them during the warmup. I finally said, “I’m done,” and I turned around with the intent to take a break from training and racing. Although I continue to swim, bike and run today (although at a much lower level), I have never done another triathlon.
Setting Guardrails for Seeking Flow
In hindsight, I would have set guardrails (boundaries, guidelines) on my training and racing. I like the term guardrails because it implies that both a boundary and a safety net to keep me from going off my path to flow states similar to how the guardrail kept me from driving off the interstate when I fell asleep at the wheel.
Examples of guardrails that I could have set for triathlon could be:
- Do no permanent damage to my body. Stop training on an injury until it fully heals (versus continuing to train through the injury).
- Schedule time blocks of forced rest. No training, light training and/or do other activities. I usually waited until I was burned out or the weather turned to snow before I slowed down each late fall/winter.
- Do only one big event per year (I was doing 2 to 3 IRONMAN races).
- Set clear priorities in my life. If my relationship with my significant other is number one, then triathlon can’t be number one.
I continue to be involved in triathlon as a coach through my company ENDURANCEWORKS. One reason I continue do this is because I want to help athletes achieve their goals in a way that doesn’t become all-consuming or damaging (like it did for me).
How I’m Managing Martial Arts Flow Differently
After I stopped triathlon, I tried Spartan Races, which are challenging and a ton of fun, for a year, but lost interest once I did the Ultra Beast championship (equivalent of an IRONMAN). My attitude was, “I’ve done the Ultra Beast. What’s next?”
In January 2014, I walked into the Boulder Quest Center (BQC) to take my first class in the To-Shin Do® martial art. I knew absolutely nothing about the Boulder Quest Center other than I could learn self-defense. I had never heard of To-Shin Do and its founder Stephen K. Hayes who traveled to Japan beginning in the 1970’s to find and train under Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Grandmaster of Togakure-ryū ninjutsu. I knew nothing about the art’s historical lineage, which originates from the direct experiences and conflicts of the ninja and samurai more than 900 years ago. I simply chose BQC because I could walk to the dojo from my house.
As fate would have it, I picked the perfect martial art for me.
On the surface, To-Shin Do is about practical self-defense in the real world. Unlike many other martial arts, there are no competitions amongst To-Shin Do practitioners. Students learn how to defend against real attacks by modern day assailants who are bigger, stronger and faster. Attacks that could occur on the street without any rules or the ability to “tap out.” The paradox of To-Shin Do is that when it’s done well, it doesn’t look like martial arts at all. The attacker attacks, the defender moves and then the attacker somehow ends up on the ground leaving both the observer and the attacker to wonder, “What the heck happened?!?!”
I can find flow states with martial arts. These mini flow states aren’t quite the big doses of feel good neurochemicals I used to get from IRONMAN Triathlons, but I can experience these “in the moment” flow states more often than I could with triathlon, especially during unscripted free response (i.e. defending against random attacks by multiple attackers). Plus, as my skills increase, the challenge of the art increases so there’s never a fixed ceiling as there is in triathlon – the challenge bar keeps moving higher in To-Shin Do even as I grow older, slower and weaker. What’s awesome is that if I achieve flow (being present, focused, connected) more often during my training, the flow states accelerate my learning.
What I like about To-Shin Do is that it already has guardrails in place. For example, within our 14-Point Code for Powerful Living, the first point is:
I protect life and health,
I avoid violence whenever possible.
Even thought I am studying a very effective martial art (and potentially damaging to an attacker), I am doing it with the purpose that I want to avoid violence whenever possible. When necessary, I protect life and health. It may be someone else’s life and health that I need to protect.
During class, we train on padded mats and practice katas (a series of techniques in response to a specific attack) with partners at slow, controlled speeds. We hit pads (not partners) for full speed punching and kicking. We also learn how to fall and roll safely. The curriculum starts with relatively basic movements then becomes more advanced (and potentially riskier) as students develop more skills and acquire more experience.The dojo provides provide a safe, yet experiential learning environment. I can achieve flow states in the dojo with a low risk of harming myself or others while training.
What I’ve learned from triathlon (a huge source of flow states for me in the past) is that I need to set guardrails to keep me from hurting myself or my relationships as I chase flow experiences. Of course, I have to agree to abide by them. Hopefully, they will keep me on the road.
Author of Full-Time and Sub-Nine: Fitting Iron Distance Training into Everyday Life, David Glover recently earned his black belt in To-Shin Do martial arts. He has completed 28 IRONMAN distance triathlons (includes two sub 9 hour finishes and winning the Vineman Full Triathlon twice). Now, he helps other triathletes achieve their athletic goals through his online triathlon education and training company, ENDURANCEWORKS. After six years of living in the triathlon mecca of Boulder, CO, David currently resides in Southern California. He is now actively seeking flow state inducing activities.