When it comes to running, the best performance enhancer isn’t something you can buy

If you’re a runner, you’re familiar with the never-ending stream of sports science advances that promise to make you just that little bit faster: specially formulated carbohydrate drinks, endurance-boosting beet extracts, shoes with plates carbon fiber curves embedded in the midsoles, etc.

But have you considered the power of performance-enhancing virtues?

In a new book from Oxford University Press called Running Examined: Why Good People Make Better RunnersPhilosopher and world-class ultramarathoner Sabrina Little argues that we should think of running, and by extension exercise and sport in general, as a laboratory for developing our character, and that cultivating traits such as perseverance, resilience , joy and gratitude can make you faster.

These are the carbon shoes of the soul, he writes. We can’t buy them, but we can develop them.

At first glance, you might think he has it backwards. After all, it’s a well-worn cliché that the discipline of running and other sports teaches us valuable lessons about persistence, patience and teamwork. This is a big part of why we enroll our children in youth programs.

There is some truth to this conventional wisdom, but it is not the whole story. After all, competitive sports can also foster less desirable traits, such as selfishness, greed, and envy. To get the right character-building benefits, you need to think carefully and deliberately about what virtues you’re trying to foster and what vices you’re trying to avoid. The payoff, according to Littles, is twofold: You’ll become a better person and, perhaps surprisingly, a better runner.

Little is a Hoka-sponsored ultramarathoner who has won numerous US national titles and at one point held the American 24-hour record with a distance of 244.7 kilometers. She is also a professor of philosophy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia with a particular interest in virtue ethics, a field of inquiry that traces its origins to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

It was probably inevitable that their two passions would overlap: philosophers ponder big questions, and ultrarunners have plenty of time to ponder while running. It was actually a broken bone in her foot a few weeks before the 2016 World Trail Running Championships that got her thinking about the ways a trait like resilience could improve performance, but it wasn’t a consequence current inevitable.

The rehabilitation exercises prescribed by his physical therapist seemed so trivial and pointless that it would have been easy to slack off. The fact that she was a committed runner did not automatically translate into the ability to stick with the program; he had to work at it. I learned that small exercises make a big difference, she writes, and that recovery is a considered option.

Powers to increase the performance of perseverance and resilience are relatively simple. For other traits such as joy and gratitude, it may be less obvious, but Little argues that they can also be beneficial. An athlete who appreciates the friends and competitors around her, for example, will have more motivation to overcome difficult conditions.

On the other hand, certain vices can also help your career, at least in the short term. Being too stubborn to quit when you’re tired or injured will get you to more finish lines, for example, but at what cost? One concern is injuries and exhaustion; a bigger one is that you are reinforcing undesirable traits.

Such a runner could be superficially successful, Little writes. But if his pace is reckless, his desires intemperate, his inclinations uncouth, or his motivations wrong, he is practicing unpleasant qualities that he will most likely carry with him for the rest of his life.

The distinctions between virtue and vice can be blurred, Little acknowledges. Too little perseverance and you are a quitter; too much and you’re on the road to injury. Finding the right balance takes some trial and error, some introspection, and maybe some debate. It is these kinds of conversations that Little hopes to stimulate, moving sports ethics beyond the usual negative discussions of doping and cheating and focusing instead on how we should aspire to live and how sport can help us to getting there.

As for the idea of ​​performance-enhancing virtues, he may be on to something. After all, the best way to get runners’ attention, whether it’s about their choice of shoes or their moral and ethical development, is to tell them it will improve their marathon time.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Threads @sweat_science.

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