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recommended by Sabrina Little

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners by Sabrina Little

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners
by Sabrina Little


Success in running could be narrowly defined in terms of performance or more broadly as part of leading a good life, argues runner and ethics professor Sabrina Little. She recommends some of her favourite books on running, from the role models that inspired her to tales of what not to do.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners by Sabrina Little

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners
by Sabrina Little


Before we get to your book recommendations, tell me a bit more about running. Why did you choose to focus on that particular activity?

Running is my vocation. It’s something that I know really well. I use it as an applied instance of where we can grow in virtue. Maybe you like gardening, maybe you’re a cyclist, maybe you play the piano. I chose running to think critically about the ways in which we can be formed in our character through having these applied practices.

But competitive situations—as you have in running—do seem to bring out the best and worst in human beings. It’s harder to hide your feelings, so it’s maybe quite a good laboratory to look at virtue ethics?

Yes, I think that when you’re in a competitive setting, your emotions are heightened. I don’t think the goal of a moral life is to hide who you really are, but maybe your deficiencies with respect to character, or your excellences with respect to character, are brought more to the surface when you’re in those kinds of situations.

And in your book, The Examined Run, you argue that it’s not just about being faster than someone else or beating personal records…

Right. We often narrowly define happiness in running in terms of performance. I think that we should think in broader human ways about what success or happiness could look like in the sport.

Sometimes there’s an immature rhetoric around sports, at least in the United States. We’ll hear things like ‘no pain, no gain’ or ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’—this glorification of suffering at any cost. I treat that and I ask questions like ‘What makes suffering good or productive?’ ‘Where are the lines there?’ I think those kinds of questions are important and not taken seriously enough in sports.

Let’s go through some of the books that you’re recommending. First up is The Sports Gene by David Epstein. What’s this book about?

Anytime we’re looking at someone who is an excellent performer, there are questions of, ‘Is it that they have some sort of biological or genetic advantage? Is it training? Are there accidental things involved, like this person was raised at altitude or happened to be healthy for a long stretch of time?’ In the book, Epstein goes through the various ways in which these factors interact. It’s a very interesting book in terms of assessing what constitutes talent.

And there are always counter examples: someone who biologically seems like they shouldn’t have performed at a high level, and yet things come together in the right way. It gets back to one of the core questions of athletics, which is, ‘Why are some people good at it and others are not?’

And some of his findings are quite unexpected, aren’t they? Could you give an example?

He has one section on malaria and a culture that had been exposed to malaria over a given period of time. The presence of malaria selected for certain genes, which both made them less susceptible to malaria and increased fast-twitch muscle fibers. This has a performance benefit. So that’s an example of an unexpected accidental condition, something not within an athlete’s control, that dictates how well they can perform.

Let’s go on to the next book, Endure by Alex Hutchinson. Tell me more.

Alex Hutchinson is a well-known sports journalist. In the book, he writes about human limits and how they’re elastic to a certain extent. We think that we can just go this far but, actually, we can push it further. He opens the book with the story of Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Previously, we thought that if you ran faster than a four-minute mile, your heart would just explode, that it was not something that we could do.

But, thereafter, people realized it was possible. Now, talented high schoolers run that fast every year. So we have this collective, human enterprise of pushing these limits.

Hutchinson talks about ways in which biologically, your body wants to maintain a sense of control or homeostasis. So sometimes we perceive our limits as lower than they actually are. He talks about the mental or psychological limits that we place on ourselves.

So it’s an interesting examination of where our limits lie. That’s a big part of human nature. What we’re capable of—what we can do; what we can’t do—that’s often how we define what it means to be human. So having that athletic inquiry is very interesting.

In your book, you’re looking at running from the point of view of virtue ethics. Is endurance in itself seen as a virtue?

Perseverance has limits. One thing I do in my book is I push back against the ‘limitlessness’ rhetoric. Oftentimes, we are defining our limits in physical terms.

But there are other things that we step over in order to achieve the best that we can. Oftentimes, the first limit we step over is our cultural limits: our family, the people in our lives.  Sometimes people step over moral limits—they’re willing to take performance enhancing drugs, or cheat in other ways that allow them to be limitless in a certain sense, but not with integrity to themselves or in the context of their lives.

So I think that Hutchinson is right—there is so much more that we can get out of ourselves. But I think a mature conversation about it will assess the ways in which being limitless is not necessarily what we want in a full life.

On that note, let’s go on to Win at All Costs by Matt Hart, which is about Nike. Maybe people in the US are more familiar with the whole story than elsewhere, so maybe set the scene a bit. 

When I said that there are certain ways in which we are limitless, morally speaking, this is an instance of that. What this book is about is Nike and a culture of deception to support winning at all costs. And some of the costs were really high. Athletes were stepped on, their bodies subject to certain kinds of training that were not sustainable in the long term. And a lot of athletes have been broken and wounded in the process.

“ Athletics is not neutral with respect to character”

Matt Hart is a journalist and for the book he had access to communication between different higher ups in the company at Nike and interviews that give you a sense of that culture. At Nike and in high performance culture in general, if you prioritize winning above everything else, there are going to be trade-offs in terms of health, in terms of athlete safety, and so forth. So if you’re interested in the ways in which a focus on winning can go wrong, it’s an important read.

So when you started writing were you thinking, ‘I can use my love of running to illuminate moral philosophy and the area of philosophy I’m interested in?’ Or was it the other way round? It’s great to put them together—because philosophy is normally thought of as so cerebral…

I came to these ideas begrudgingly. I was running professionally at the time and people often asked me how my work in philosophy related to what I do athletically. I kept the spheres pretty separate: running was what I did at this time of day and then my philosophical work was later in the day.

But I started seeing more of a crossover. I began realizing the ways in athletics is not neutral with respect to character. And if I was able to persevere, if I was patient, or if I were envious—these things were showing up in how I participated in the sport. So I started writing about it with greater regularity, just in terms of public philosophy, and became more interested in the ideas. That’s where the book came from.

The subtitle is ‘Why Good People Make Better Runners.’ Is that a core part of the argument?

It’s supposed to be a bit provocative. When you hear that you think of all of the terrible people you know who are really good at sports!

In running specifically, there are several virtues that both support peak performance and are compatible with a good life in general. They are some of the virtues that I named: perseverance, patience, even just emotional control—being able to down-regulate heightened emotions and respond peaceably to conflict. Those are things that really help as a runner, but also help you to live a more well-ordered life outside of sport. So there’s that.

And I think, in the cases when there are vices that support performance—like envy, like pride, even intransigence when you hold on to something too long—oftentimes, there’s a virtue that could also support performance that you could substitute in its place. Instead of envy, emulation is a good substitute. Or instead of selfishness, having relationships of solidarity or love or charity. There are groups that have a lot of mutual edification and support built into their structure and we’re seeing a lot of peak performance from them. So I think that in many cases, you don’t need the vice in order to perform well. So that’s an argument I make in the book as well.

You mention in the book that ancient philosophers—at Plato’s Academy—talked about gymnastics being important. Philosophers shouldn’t just be sitting at their desks.

Yes, the idea was that athletics or gymnastics and poetry serve together to prepare learners so that they would be teachable. It would help them to be more disciplined, to have more emotional control, to love the right things. Thereafter, you can be educated but you need to have that kind of foundation in place.

Another interesting point you mention in your book is that when we talk about ethics in sport, we’re normally thinking of things going wrong—cyclists taking performance-enhancing drugs etc. But the other aspect is that there are also things we could and should be celebrating.

Yes. And I don’t think that’s just sports. I’m an ethics professor and at the beginning of term, I always ask my students what ethics means. They just give a list of things they’re not supposed to do, and don’t provide any kind of vision of what you should do or be instead.

We’re now at your last two book choices, which focus specifically on running and women. The first one is Good for a Girl. Tell me about Lauren Fleshman and her story.

This is probably my favorite book on this list, just in terms of what it taught me. Lauren Fleshman was a professional runner in the United States. Initially, she ran for Stanford, and was a many-time national champion and subsequently she ran for the United States.

She writes about the way in which structures surrounding sport are often built with men in mind. A lot of that has to do with the fact that women were only permitted into sports later on. Contracts are not built with pregnancy in mind, for example, or there are ways in which women’s uniforms objectify women in ways that they don’t for men. If you’ve ever watched professional track and field, the women wear these small swimsuit-type outfits, and the men wear just floppy shorts. Why is that the case?

In the United States, we have something called Title IX, which granted equal access to women in high school and college, to be able to participate in sports in equal numbers to men. That was wonderful, but oftentimes, equal access meant we were granted permission to be in a space that was designed with men in mind. An example Lauren Fleshman provides is how scholarships are generally awarded in junior year of high school, when as a woman you are more or less at your performance nadir, hormonally. Women are encouraged to be lighter and faster, and to not have that dip in performance comes at the cost of long-term health.

Another issue is that women are typically excluded from empirical studies on performance. Men are easier because they don’t have cycles. But that means that a lot of the studies that we have about what kinds of performance, what sort of training work, are designed with men in mind—when women have different physiological responses to those things.

It’s just a really interesting book. I went through high school, collegiate running and professional running, and I felt tension points at various places, but didn’t have a language to describe what was happening. For me, it was an important book.

She’s presumably a previous generation to you. Have things got better, do you get the sense?

Things are improving. For example, over the last few years, at least in the United States, our contracts do include things like maternity clauses. Previously, those were treated as injuries. And there are more conversations about female specific nutrition and relative energy deficiency in sport. There are a few notable institutions that are now focusing on female health specifically. There’s a performance lab led by Trent Stellingwerff in Canada. Stanford has the FASTR program which is about female health as well. So there’s a great deal more research now than there probably was when she was coming up the ranks.

But hers is a success story in spite of the challenges?

She was a very high performer. She describes how she was a late bloomer which profited her. Some of the accidental conditions of her life led to her having success. She does describe walking away from Nike after she wanted to have a child and couldn’t do that without having her contract suspended. She describes those tension points in her career.

The last book you’re recommending is How She Did It by Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery. These are the stories of a number of women who succeeded as runners.

I think exemplars are really important—having people who have done great things and being able to learn from them. This is a consolidated project about all these people who reached the greatest heights in the sport.

They also did it in radically different ways. Some of them played a broad set of sports and came to running later, some of them came up early through the sport. One thing that we can be inclined to think is that there’s only one way to be successful. If this other person is doing more reps earlier than we are or their training looks differently than ours, then they know something that we don’t. This book gives you a good vision for how performance success can look a number of ways.

You’ve got a chapter on exemplars in your book. Is that something philosophers look at?

Yes. A lot of the research that I rely on comes out of the Jubilee Center at the University of Birmingham. So exemplars are just anyone who is exceptional. It’s a way in which we become better ourselves. Why? Because if I just tell you what perseverance is, it could sound nice, but unless you see it in someone and see what excellence looks like, and you’re drawn to do likewise, it’s hard to do. Humans are imitative. Having someone you can admire, who will motivate you to do likewise but also show you what the excellence looks like, has that kind of epistemic but also motivational value. It’s showing you it’s good, but then also drawing you to do likewise. So that’s important.

So are you going to continue on the dual track of philosophy and running?

I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old. So just because of that, I’m taking a step back from competing on the national stage for at least the next couple of years. But hopefully, I will be returning in time and will do both because I love both. Both philosophy and running are vocations for me.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 8, 2024

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Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is an Assistant Professor at Christopher Newport University. Sabrina's research is in virtue ethics, classical philosophy, and moral psychology. She is also a 5-time US Champion and World Championship silver medallist in trail and ultramarathon running.

Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is an Assistant Professor at Christopher Newport University. Sabrina's research is in virtue ethics, classical philosophy, and moral psychology. She is also a 5-time US Champion and World Championship silver medallist in trail and ultramarathon running.