Thinking and Running

...because the artist is controlled in the process of his work by his grasp of the connection between what he has already done and what he is to do next, the idea that the artist does not think as intently and penetratingly as a scientific inquirer is absurd. A painter must consciously undergo the effect of his every brush stroke or he will not be aware of what he is doing and where his work is going. Moreover, he has to see each particular connection of doing and undergoing in relation to the whole that he desires to produce. To apprehend such relations is to think, and is one of the most exacting modes of thought. --John Dewey, Art as Experience

A philosopher-friend of mine who recently read my blog offered the following friendly criticism:

I know that you're trying to combat the gearheads and number junkies by your "just run" philosophy (like the apples and roots post) but it seems important to emphasize that thinking isn't bad. how else do you deal with problems? if thinking is itself a problem (because you can't get out the door or you have the wrong expectations about your runs), that seems like one thing. but if your knee hurts, and has hurt for years, what are you supposed to do? you don't get better at anything by just doing it. or you might, but probably not as well as a reflective practice.

He's right, of course. I say in the Apples and Roots post that thinking just adds more junk. But it's also clear that we need and want to be intelligent about our running. Training is hard. We screw it up all the time. We do the wrong things, and we could be better and smarter with our running. Seems like we ought to call in some thinking to sort this stuff out.

I agree. But here we have to be careful and go slowly. What does it mean to think about running? Or to think about anything for that matter?

Thinking is not valuable in itself. Every philosopher knows this all too well. Thinking goes wrong when it loses an intimate connection with active experience. When the connection with experience is broken, thinking can become a distraction from life, a mode of fantasy. When this happens, thinking is just a manifestation of anxiety, the mind turned inwards and unhinged. Thinking can make us less capable of carrying out our life projects. Reflection can distract us from our problems. It can even multiply problems and create false problems. When this happens, thinking can make us less intelligent.

The value of thinking, then, is not given in advance. It is determined by its influence on and in actual and living problems. Thinking is good if it helps us achieve our goals. Thinking is bad if it distracts us from those goals.

So, what does it mean for a runner to think? In order to answer this question, the problem of running must be well-defined. What is the problem that thinking is brought in to address?

This is where Dewey is helpful. The project of running is more art than science. Running can and does mean many different things to different people, and what it means to think depends upon the total aim of the project of running. Let's keep things simple now and relevant and say that the project of running is to learn how to race fast. That's the overarching aim that my running is oriented towards. I am trying to construct a particular (and peculiar) sort of object: the ability to cover, on a particular day, 26.2 miles in less than two and a half hours.

Running, then, is art--it is an attempt to bring something singular and new into the world. It takes materials presently at hand and refashions them in an attempt to express something that has not been yet expressed. Running is not science. There is not an object out there, ready made, to be explored. The task of the runner is to create something new, a new self, to bring a new quality into existence.

What does thinking mean in this context? Thinking means as Dewey writes, seeing "each particular connection of doing and undergoing in relation to the whole that he desires to produce." So, when I examine my runs, it is the perspective of the orienting goal that guides my intelligence. Thinking about our running means reflecting on the value of each run with respect to the end that it aims to accomplish, just as the artist must see and evaluate each individual brush stroke in relation to the whole that it will eventually produce, just as the writer must evaluate each word that is written in the context of the meaning that it drives towards.

It is exactly at this moment, however, that the difficulty of what it means to think as a runner comes alive. If the artist stops to analyze each brush stroke, if the writer analyzes each and every word as it rolls forward onto the page, the work of art or the work of meaning is endangered. The artist, the writer, must think hard about his work, but he cannot over-think it. Thinking is only intelligent insofar as it actually advances the project, solves and breaks through living and actual obstacles. These solutions are not intellectual, but practical. We know we have a solution when the work of art comes closer to life, when the draft becomes less rough, when the runner begins to make progress. The value of thinking can only be articulated in its consequences for the whole.

It is for this reason that the artist thinks with his brush. There are always moments of hesitation, revision, trial and error, but these moments are solved not through the mind, but in the painting itself. The artist must work his problems out in an actual painting, by marking the canvas.

So it is with running. We runners think with our legs, on the road. Our solutions to problems do not come in the form of mental concepts, but in the realization of capabilities. Thinking as a runner almost always means actually running--trying this, trying that, going easier, going harder--just as thinking for the artist means putting brush to canvas. It is in this way that intelligence is realized because the criterion of intelligence is not criticism or even knowledge, but the production of the end that we set out to achieve, the consummation of an experience.

It's for this reason that I have a tendency to answer questions about running form or even training strategies with encouragement to "just run." Because the running makes the problem concrete; the feelings and obstacles emerge and become immediate instead of imagined. It's not that the running is more fundamental than the thinking. It's that the running is the thinking. It is the carrying out of the project, experimentally, roughly at first, and then more determinately and precisely, bringing something new into the world.

So, yes, reflective practice. But the practice itself is its own reflection. There is no such thing as "just doing it," no such thing as running apart from reflection. Doing, if it means anything at all, just is reflecting, breaking apart, and making anew. To tell someone to just run is not to tell them to avoid thinking. It is to invite them into the actual work of reflection.


  1. I'd also consider it's not "thinking vs not-thinking" as much as right vs left brain. When I draw, I don't think in specifics. It's more of a wordless expression. My left brain wants to butt in, looking for shortcuts and "answers." I must focus on keeping the left brain quiet.

    I think this is applicable to running too. It's easy to get bogged down with numbers when you really should be focusing on getting out of your own way.

    We think backwards. We think "if only I could run fast, then I'd relax." "If only I'd lose weight, I'd be healthy." "If only I could draw well, I'd practice drawing." The left brain wants to be fast, wants to lose weight, wants have the finished product. The left brain wants tangible markers of success.

    It's all a balance, of course, but the right brain gets ignored too much. The right brain deals with the stuff that doesn't have a lot of assumptions attached to it. That's how you draw a nose - first recognize it's not a nose. It's a bunch of shapes, shadows, and light. Draw those shapes, not "a nose" because the left brain will interfere with assumptions of what the nose is.

    The right brain shows you reality as it is, the left brain gives you numbers and language and assumptions that make reality easier to deal with. A left-brained runner runs a pace and distance predetermined by a training schedule, with little regard to how the body feels. Everything is managed top-down, or from the outside in. The right-brained runner has no separation between body and self. Speed and distance is not the goal, but merely the result of being mindful of the fluidity of motion and the constant struggle to avoid struggling. It's from the bottom up, or from the inside out.

    That's enough rambling from me. I'm enjoying your blog! Lot's of fun stuff to read.

  2. Hey Josh,

    Thanks so much for the feedback--and from an actual artist! I think you'd like Dewey's Art as Experience, if you haven't read it already...

    Keep reading, thinking, drawing, and runnin'!

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