Saturday, June 6, 2009

Brad Hudson and William James: a pragmatic approach to running

I thought I'd switch gears and give a little book review. I just picked up Brad Hudson's: Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach which had been recommended to me by a bunch of folks. It's the hot read for sure for the competitive running scene.

The book is full of information, insights, training suggestions, etc. There's little point in giving a review of the whole book. I will say, though, that it is worth buying because it offers what's most important to the self-coached runner: a set of useful concepts. Runners, especially at the beginning of their running careers want a plan. We want to be told what to do. We want an authority to follow. This makes sense because just starting out, the runner lacks experience on which to base their decisions and so is incapable of thinking intelligently about training.

But at a certain stage in training, a runner should begin to take control of her training. And this is where concepts become important, and incidentally where the runner begins to be philosophical: that is, she begins the liberating task of accruing wisdom and self-knowledge. As Deleuze and Guattari write in What Is Philosophy? the task of philosophy is the production of concepts. By attending to how Hudson develops concepts for training we can begin to see where philosophy and an intelligent approach to training--the philosophy of running--intersect, and also where coaches like Brad Hudson might have something to teach to philosophers.

Since the production of concepts lies at the heart of philosophy, philosophers have long argued over what a concept is. For Plato, concepts were more real than objects, as they were glimpses into the ideal essences of things. For modern empiricists like Locke, concepts were less real than objects: they were mental abstractions that often confused or distracted us from the things themselves. For critical philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Marx concepts worked with objects dialectically, but also critically. Concepts always fail to denote objects, but the failure itself can be intelligently reconstructed through the act of criticism into better representation. At the heart of all of these perspectives on the concept was the problem of the adequacy of mental representation: it is clear that an actual tree must differ from the concept of a tree, as the concept is abstract and the perception sensed. The difference between the cognized tree and the perceived tree is one that haunts, stimulates, and sometimes distracts traditional philosophical thought.

William James and C.S. Peirce undercut this problem of representation at the beginning of the 20th century with the invention of pragmatism. These pragmatists were less concerned with the ontological characteristics of concepts and the obvious difference between acts of mind and objects in the world and more concerned with how concepts might be used to live better. So, for the pragmatist the value of a concept is not associated with its ability (or lack thereof) to represent an object in the world. It is associated with its use-value, its function in intelligent pragmatic reasoning. A concept is good if it works to enable us to be more intelligent: that is, to navigate the problems and possibilities of life better.

Hudson's book is a primer in the pragmatic development of concepts. It's no surprise that his mentor, the Italian coach Renato Canova, was a fan of William James. I found this post on a letsrun thread by Canova:
You are in the Country of the Phylosopher of Pragmatism, James. Try to be more pragmatic : the final goal is not to discuss who was, or is, better between the great coaches of the history, but to know the way for making the athletes faster. For doing this, you have to use ALL YOUR KNOWLEDGE, not limiting yourself to one source only.
Hudson follows his mentor well in the book. He is focused on the title of the book: "run faster," and each concept he develops revolves around this purpose. Unlike Noakes or Daniels, each of whom is an excellent coach in their own right, Hudson is uninterested in making his training concepts "match up" with physiological objects. His problem is not the old problem of representation: matching laws of training with the findings of physiology. He takes a pragmatic approach: pragmatically developing concepts useful for the purpose of faster running. He understands that this goal of training is not to understand physiologic truths. It is not to map training concepts onto physiological functions. It is not to develop a more adequate understanding of the relation between physiological science and training strategies. These are all interesting inquiries in their own right, and some of them may inform the question of how to get faster. But the goal of training is simple: to run faster. This is the perspective that organizes and drives Hudson's approach.

Hudson is a philosopher of fast running. He invents concepts that enable the competitive runner to work intelligently towards the goal of running faster. It is his clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to the task that makes his book exceptional. And in fact, this pragmatic mindset and vision--beyond any particular concept, strategy, or plan--is perhaps the greatest contribution his book makes to the art of training.


  1. Fortune cookie wisdom:

    Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what they sought.

  2. Hey Bill--you got it. Thanks for reading, posting, and congrats on making it through a dense post!

  3. Oh--and nice job breaking 1:30!!

  4. Hi, found your blog through Running Ahead, and here you are quoting D&G to discuss running. I love it!

    Anyway, one of the great things I find in reading continental philosophers in the line of Hegel is what is also great about running - it is in someway unknowable. The concepts are always just slightly out of reach and in reaching for them, we use our creativity and experience to shape the concepts.

    Or I could just be talking about of my ass.

  5. Hey Sean,

    Thanks for reading. Nice point. This blog notwithstanding, I find it pretty hard to write about running for the reasons you talk about. Running is a pretty direct experience, whereas discourse and reflection is indirect. Though I do think that reflection and writing add meaning to my running, sometimes I run to turn off the mind and let the body have its say!


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