Scientific Lecture

9th International Mountain and Outdoor Sports Conference, Prague, Czech Republic, 24th November 2018

Highway to Flow. Prerequisites and effects of flow states on performance in extreme ultramarathon races

Key words: motivation, positive psychology, performance, satisfaction, ultramarathon, trail running




Running is one of the most popular sports worldwide. Despite the rapidly increasing interest in the areas of adventurous ultramarathon and trail running and the sometimes enormous psychological challenges experienced in these events, only very few sport psychology studies have been conducted in this area and were mostly focused on personality traits, motives for running and cognitive strategies (Janouch, 2015, Simpson et al., 2014, Wollseiffen, 2016). According to the central assumptions of flow theory, flow is regarded as a highly functional, performance enhancing state and an optimal challenge-skill balance is considered an essential prerequisite for flow (Csikszentmihalyi & Jackson, 2000). But the empirical findings in sports regarding these central assumptions are contradictory (Ufer, 2017). And so far no flow research has been conducted in trail and ultramarathon races. Within 8 extreme ultramarathons with a distance of up to 250 kilometers, e.g. in the Amazon rainforest, Kalahari Desert, or at the polar circle, answers to the following questions were searched: Is the postulated challenge-skill balance a prerequisite for flow experience? How does flow experience affect the athlete’s performance and satisfaction?


A total of N = 129 athletes of all performance levels repeatedly took part in brief surveys at different time points during and immediately after completion of the race. Thus, for the first time, longitudinal data was collected during ultramarathon competitions. A customized and extended version of the Flow Short Scale (Rheinberg et al. 2003) was applied. In addition, objective performance data such as rankings and finish times were included in the data analysis.


Athletes with optimum match of challenge and skills report significantly higher flow scores than athletes without fit, F(1, 577) = 50.62, p < .001, η2 = .081. Fast runners report higher flow values than slow runners, while slow runners report higher flow scores than athletes who had to leave the race, F(2, 580) = 17.74, p < .001, η2 = .058. In addition, a positive correlation between flow and the satisfaction with one's own performance is shown, rs = .525, p < .001.


Present findings support the theoretical assumptions that the challenge-skill balance is a key prerequisite for flow. This balance is dynamic in nature and depends on permanent self-regulatory processes (Csikszentmihalyi & Jackson, 2000). In addition, for the first time a connection between flow and performance in (extreme ultramarathon) running is shown. To conclude, due to its link with enhanced performance, it is of great interest for athletes, trainers and practitioners to have an understanding of the flow concept and mechanisms. Further studies should enlighten how psychological skills and other factors help promote the occurrence of flow in endurance sport.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Jackson, S. A. (2000). Flow im Sport. Der Schlüssel zur optimalen Erfahrung und Leistung. München: BLV

Janouch, C. (2015). Trailrunning: Motivationale Zugänge und Persönlichkeitsstrukturen von Trailläufern. Masterthesis, Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Simpson, D., Post, P. G., Young, G., & Jensen, P. R. (2014). “It’s Not About Taking the Easy Road”: The Experiences of Ultramarathon Runners. The Sport Psychologist, 28(2), 176-185.

Ufer, M. (2017). Flow-Erleben, Anforderungsfähigkeitspassung und Leistung in extremen Ultramarathon-Wettkämpfen. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač

Wollseiffen, P., Schneider, S., Martin, L. A., Kerhervé, H. A., Klein, T., & Solomon, C. (2016). The effect of 6 h of running on brain activity, mood, and cognitive performance. Experimental Brain Research, 1-8.

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