Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Run Like a Stoic

The following piece is a guest post by "Scout7," a sporadic but long time poster on the Running Ahead message boards. I asked Scout to do this piece for two reasons. First, he is not a philosopher by training, but I have always found his insights on running to be philosophical--mindful of the place of running within the larger ethical task of living life well. Second, his posts on training and running on Running Ahead have helped me think more intelligently about how to train and have influenced my own running philosophy. I believe both of these reasons will be evident in what he has written below. Enjoy!


"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. "  
                   -- Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave. His philosophy, not ironically, was a practice of freedom.
Jeff asked me if I would mind writing a guest post for his blog, and of course I agreed.  I mean, why not?  How hard could it be?  I write all kinds of drivel in various online forums, so this won’t be difficult at all.

Lemme tell ya, I was wrong.  I struggled for a week or so, and threw out several variants.  It didn’t help that I really had no starting point.  Unfortunately for me, I need something more concrete than “write about running.”  Who knew?

A couple weeks ago, a common topic popped up online: Recommend some good running-related books to read.  Of course the usual selections were given: Dr. Daniels’ book, Pfitzinger, Once a Runner, yadda yadda yadda.  I cannot deny that those are good books for running (mostly because I haven’t read most of them).  My recommendations were Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Enchiridion by Epictetus.  For those who have not read either book, neither mentions running specifically.

So why the recommendations?  At first, I was doing it to be obtuse; I do take a perverse pleasure in throwing something out to see what sort of conversation gets generated without providing a full reason behind the initial statement.

But really, there was more to it, and I had to really think about what I was trying to accomplish--especially since no one even acknowledged my recommendations, the Philistines!!  After some soul-searching and contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the general idea behind those books is at the core of how I approach training.

The books are based on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  Most people have heard the term “stoic” before and take it to mean suffering through without displaying emotion.  Unfortunately, that misses the real heart of Stoicism.  It’s not that there is no emotion; it’s that you understand the nature and purpose of things.  The goal of the ancient Stoics was to live a life free from the undue influence of externals.  This goal was accomplished by recognizing that we are responsible solely for ourselves, and when we get upset, or jealous, or anything else, we are letting others control our emotions and our actions.

(Note, I am not a professional philosopher, so this is my take on things.  Don’t agree?  Deal with it.)

What does that have to do with running and training?

Once we get past all the numbers, the break down of cycles, the daily workout schedules, etc., what is left?  There are a few core principles that I think are relevant to any runner, no matter age or ability.  First, everything you do should have purpose.  If your goal is to stay fit and healthy, then all of your training should be directed towards that goal.  Every session has a reason for being, and you need to understand, accept, and follow that purpose.  Ignoring the purpose of a workout leads to problems in training.  The idea that most people go too easy on hard days and too hard on easy days highlights nicely the idea of purpose.

Second, no one else is you, and you need to spend time examining and understanding yourself.  To me, this is one of the greatest benefits of running, particularly running alone.  You get a chance to get inside your head, to spend some quality time with yourself.  You need this time to improve both your training and the other aspects of your life.  I have worked through more issues while out on the roads than in any other single place.  By spending this quality time, you get to the heart of your motivations.  Understanding these motivations is the key to determining purpose.  Additionally, it gives you a chance to see how you respond to different things.  Do you do better with more volume, or less?  How many intervals are too many?  All of the questions you see being asked on message boards are probably better answered by oneself, not by a bunch of random people who happened to read your question that day.  The answers you receive give you a starting place, but you need to do the work and evaluate your response to it.

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor and a soldier. This was no ivory-tower theoretician, but a man whose need to think came directly out of his living responsibilities.

Third, you need patience.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your body.  You have to give yourself time.  Having goals is a fundamental aspect of this point.  With the right goals, you can always go back to them to understand why you are running easy today or why you shouldn’t do that really great-sounding marathon next week.  Goals lend themselves to tempering your responses, and that’s what patience is.  You need to realize that you have to take time to step back, evaluate, and understand.

Finally, and this point is probably hardest to grasp, you are responsible for you.  Not your shoes, not your watch, not anything else.  Those are tools, to be used with the requisite understanding, but they do not take away your responsibility to yourself.  You cannot blame shoes when you don’t pay attention to your body.  You cannot abdicate your race performance to a watch.  None of these things assures or prevents success.  The only factor in all of this is you, the individual.  You have to take responsibility for determining your goals, for examining your motivations, for listening to your body, and for having the patience to make it all come together. 

Ultimately, the thing that makes you a better runner has nothing to do with the types of workouts, the number of miles, or the method you use to monitor effort.  The answer is much simpler than that.  You have to align your training with your goals, understand the motivation behind the goals, build your training in a fashion that matches those goals and yourself, give yourself time, and take responsibility for your training.  You need to be honest about the purpose of your training and whether you’ve been true to that purpose or not.

In the end, the real message is that we have to be true to ourselves.  Don’t get caught up in all the little things, missing the forest for the trees.  Find a purpose to your training, and use that purpose to make yourself a better runner, if not a better person.

9 comments:

  1. I saw the recommendation on the thread. Didn't have much to say about it except 'good recommendation', so didn't bother.

    I am a professional philosopher. You pretty much nailed it. Very nice.

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  2. All those who enjoyed this post might find the training philosophies of Percy Cerutty interesting. The most successful high school couch in the country follows his "Stotan" training method, which is a combination of Stoic philosophy and Spartan thought. You can find a description of the Stotan code here:
    http://alancouzens.blogspot.com/2008/06/stotan-code.html

    You can also read about Bill Aris' use of the Stotan method in his training of high school runners in this interview from letrun.com:
    http://www.letsrun.com/2010/tracktalk041301.php

    Thanks to Scout for a great post!

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful, well-written post. The quote nails the challenge we all face: first what would you be? It's easy, and somewhat comforting, to get caught up in one's own "busyness" -- whether it's slogging or living your daily life -- and avoid answering that question.

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  4. The part I like the best is that "you are responsible for you". So many of us tend to blame everything except ourselves. If you want to be a quality runner, you MUST do quality workouts, eat the right food, and do things differently than "normal" Americans. Nuff said

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  5. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and meaningful words. I will be sharing this post. Nice job.

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  6. Thank you folks for commenting. Perhaps Scout will weigh in on some of your thoughts.

    @mr loser: I think that mr loser captures one thing that is great about this post. The stoic philosophers and ancient philosophy in general has a wonderful lucidity to it because--to put it bluntly--they just didn't have as much stuff lying around them. There were no televisions, no computers, no huge industry of distraction. Scout does a great job of articulating the value of that lucid focus on the essentials. I think this is a value that we all recognize, when we remember it, but the ancients do a great job of allowing us this memory.

    @CharlieT: Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure that I agree with you. Seems to me that a huge part of the modern condition is this whole blame/guilt thing. One thing that I find refreshing about the Stoics is that these words--blame, guilt, etc.--are simply absent from their philosophy. Also, the Stoics had a very dim view of the ability of the individual to change his life. The best that the individual can do is understand the unchangeable aspects of his nature and Nature at large and live according to them. This idea of living in accord with yourself is a humble one, and it lies at the core of Stoic philosophy. The self that Scout alludes to, then, is not some independently free will that invents itself and has only itself to blame for its sins. The Stoic self is a natural self, the self given to you by nature, that has its own form and purpose. The key to life is not to transform that self, but to live according to it. Harmony being the key concept.

    So, you can see we are very far from a picture of blame, guilt, and fault, entirely--either individual or social. These concepts would grow in importance with the spread of Christianity.

    Jenny, thanks for commenting and sharing!!

    My sincere hope is that I can wheedle a few more of these posts out of Scout.

    Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

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  7. Firstly, thanks to Jeff for giving me the opportunity to do this. I enjoyed the process, and yes, I can probably be convinced to do it again.

    To everyone who reads my post, I hope you it gives you something to think about. Thanks for reading, and comments/questions are always welcome.

    To specific comments:
    @mrloser: Exactly what I was going for. If you read the interview with Bill Aris, he talks about a similar idea. He lets each athlete decide what they want to get out of a season, and then shapes training appropriately. They don't chase miles, which is really easy for us to do.

    @CharlieT: I think I agree with what you're saying (or my interpretation of it). I agree that people are quick to point to externals for their problems, when they should really be focusing inwards. One of the key points in Stoicism is to accept that we can only be responsible for our own responses. I see people blame shoes for injuries (and successes), when the reality is that it's far more likely that they train too hard too often. There is no magic pill. I think this is what you're trying to say, and I would agree.

    @Jenny & Michael: Thanks to both for the kind words. I'm glad you appreciated the post!

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  8. Perfectly written and so timely for where I am right now. Thanks to Barefoot AngieBee for linking this on her blog, glad I found you.

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  9. Good post and I am liking the thought process here. The idea of stoicism as you outline is very much akin to psychology's cognitive behavior therapy which I have adapted into my own life. One tenant of this being that oneself is only being in existence capable of determining one's thoughts or feelings. External forces can only influence our feelings and emotions if we allow them to. Just as no-one can determine our mood or choices, we cannot affect others.

    The word "should," when viewed in such a respect, is taboo. "Should" indicates a natural order or state of existence that we rarely, if ever, actually control. Using such a word in our thoughts or conversation implies a control over others, or the natural world, that we simply lack. This word implies that we know what must be, implies an understanding of reality we could not possibly have. When the world our or lives do not turn out as they "should," we suffer due to this belief. You "should" do this. That "should" happen.

    As you write, repeats might NOT make you faster. Running easy might NOT be the best strategy for your daily regime. Having a training plan might NOT lead to a PR . . .

    We can control how we feel. We can control how we respond to conditions in our universe. We can, to an extent, control out actions moment to moment. Control of those actions can lead to improvement, understanding, and beyond all, peace within ourselves. :)

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