The act of going for a run and a 2000-year-old group of philosophers might not seem like an obvious pairing, but some of The Stoics’ key tenets can provide a great lens through which you can prepare yourself for going far by foot.
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy that has seen a surge in popularity in recent years – it’s pragmatic principles on self-control, banishing negative emotions and living a good life seem as relevant and fresh today as they were when they were written, some 2000 years ago. Somehow though, the word ‘stoic’ has become a synonym for ‘detached’ or ‘unemotional’, but this undermines a school of philosophy which encourages engaging with people and the world, and has a lot in common with Buddhist principles. Notable Stoics I’ll mention here include Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor, also Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Gladiator), Epictitus and Seneca, who once said…
“Life is long if you know how to use it . . .a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
But what does this have to do with going for a run? Anyone who has done some form of distance running will tell you, things never go smoothly once you start running far. Whether it’s injuries, tough conditions or mental fatigue, once you start getting into longer distances you are bound to face personal challenges of one sort or another. So how can the Stoics help? Well, their brand of philosophy dealt specifically with preparing yourself for hardship, so you can handle it well – almost thrive on it – and see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
Let’s look at how some of Stoicism’s key principles can be applied to running:
The Dichotomy of Control – Setting Your Running Goals
“Of existing things, God has placed some within our power, and others not within our power. Within our power he has placed the most important thing, that through which he himself is happy, the power to deal with impressions.”
– Epictetus, 55 A.D. – 135 A.D
One key idea in Stoicism is that we can hold the key to our own happiness by setting internal goals, as opposed to external goals. An internal goal would be something that you’re working towards which you have complete control over. An external goal would be something that you have only partial, or no control over. Spending time worrying about things we have only partial – or zero – control over is not productive, and will lead to unhappiness. In other words – why waste time worrying about things we have no control over? Instead, the Stoics would advise that we set goals in which we are completely in control of the outcome – this way, even if we don’t achieve them, later we can rationalise the result and set a course for achieving them in another way.
How can we apply this to running? Alright, say you’re gearing up for a 10k or a marathon. An example of an internal goal – one which we can control – would be ‘I want to run at a better pace than last year‘ or ‘I’ll focus on enjoying myself rather than getting a good place‘. An example of an external goal – i.e. one which we’re not in control of – would be ‘I want to be in the top 10,’ or ‘I want to beat that little Japanese guy,’ – since these goals depend on external factors (the speed of other runners, or perhaps weather, or terrain), they are out-with your control, and spending time worrying about achieving them is fruitless. Instead, internalise your goals – even if you don’t succeed in completing them, you can rationalise the reasons why in a constructive manner and set a course for achieving them later – and you’ll be much more appreciative of your run.
Note that goals to do with achieving specific paces and times in a race can be influenced by external factors like the weather, the conditions of that particular day, etc. so I would treat these goals as ‘nice to haves’.
Negative Visualisation – Prepare yourself for pain
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation. . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
– Seneca the Younger, 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.
Any novice distance runner will tell you that in a distance running event, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Blisters, injuries, bad weather, fatigue, loss of motivation, wild animal attacks – by going running you are opening yourself up to the unpleasant unknown.
The Stoics had a method for hardening themselves against such situations, which is referred to as Negative Visualisation. So before they, for example, went into battle, a Stoic military leader would mentally consider all the possible negative outcomes – defeat, ambush, death – to help him prepare. This process has two positive results – firstly it means the leader performs a mini ‘risk assessment’ on each outcome, weighing up the chances of them occurring, and the magnitude of the effect it would have. Secondly it also mentally hardens him- by considering the worst possible outcomes before a battle, he is already utterly prepared for whatever comes his way. Nothing will surprise him or shake his will.
So, applying negative visualisation to running : before a run or running event we can consider all the possible negative outcomes that could happen – that nagging knee injury might re-occur and we might have to walk, maybe our stomach will reject the energy gels we’re forcing into it and we’ll make ourselves ill, maybe we’ll trip in a pothole and DNF in a race. By considering all these scenarios before you’ve even put on your socks, you’ve already set your expectations at an appropriate level, and prepared yourself to not be disappointed if one of these outcomes actually happens. And if you manage to complete the run without any of these terrible things happening, you’ll appreciate it a lot more!
Self Denial – Run To Feel Better Later
‘Self Denial’ is the process of doing something that requires some effort and self-discipline to reap a later reward. For example, instead of drinking a Coke right now you’ll resist temptation and keep it in the fridge until you feel you’ve earned it. The Stoics, amongst many other philosophers and religious groups, felt self-denial was one of the most important qualities men and women could work on.
Running is a perfect example of self-denial. Going for a run isn’t always the first thing you want to do. How often have you arrived home after work and wanted to do nothing but veg out, watch TV and fall asleep? But instead, if you can muster the will to stick on your running shoes and get out the door, beat out a few kilometres, you’ll later feel the benefits. You feel healthier, calmer, happier and have the satisfaction of having worked your body that day.
Meditation and Running
The Stoics (along with Buddhists, Hindus, and countless other belief systems) believe that some form of self-reflection can be a great benefit to our day-to-day well-being. Meditation can take many forms, but for the sake of simplicity here we can think of it as taking a bit of time to reflect on yourself and what’s going on in your head, with no set goal or end point – the reflection is the end in itself. The Stoics recognised the importance of knowing yourself, of reflecting on your emotions and the motives behind your day-to-day actions – and running can be a good way of taking the time to do this. Running gets the blood flowing and kicks the brain into gear – next time you get a chance, run in a quiet place without headphones, and you’ll soon find how easy it is to let your brain wander too.
On Turning Obstacles Into Opportunities
“Man is affected not by events, but by the view he takes on them.“
– Epictetus, 55 A.D, – 135 A.D.
The Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, believed that bad things were only actually bad for us if we decided to see them as bad. This might seem like an extreme view – some things in life naturally make us feel bad or provoke a negative response. But the Stoics believed that we should train ourselves to try and see the opportunity in every obstacle – rather than dwelling on the negative consequences of something bad, we should focus our attention on the new opportunities that come along with the negative experience. A lot of this can take the form of learning more about ourselves – learning how we react to bad news, for example.
For a regular runner, setbacks are eventually inevitable – you might sustain an injury that puts you out of the game, your body might suffer from fatigue, or after a while you could realise you simply lack the motivation to keep up your running schedule. The trick, as the Stoics would advise you here, is to lean in to these setbacks – accept them quickly, re-align your trajectory and decide you are going to use them productively, to learn more about yourself or your body’s capabilities.
Take that injury that stops you from running – instead of sitting on the couch when you’d otherwise be running, you could choose to use the time to be in the gym, strengthening the legs and becoming stronger than you would’ve been had the injury never happened. Or that lack of motivation you’re feeling – maybe what you need to do is find a fresh perspective to look at your training, or sign up for an event in an exotic location – which might motivate you to re-double your training efforts and become a better runner than you would have otherwise been.
Note: Ryan Holiday’s excellent book, ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’, expands on this point and has become a key text for some athletes and sports teams.
On The Shortness of Life – Stoicism And Running
“Life is short”, everybody says. Except Seneca. Returning to our opening quote, here’s the full version (taken from one of Seneca’s letters, which have been preserved from private correspondence, but were never intended to be published):
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
– Seneca the Younger, 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.
How does this apply to running? Running is a good use of your time – and your time is your most valuable resource. Running is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to preserve your fitness, which maintains a healthy body and mind, leading to a longer life. And running events, such as marathons and races, can give you meaningful and deeply satisfying goals to work towards.
Seneca would approve, I’m sure.