On Deliberative Sports

I never race well in late April.

Every year, I stand on the starting line of an April race with a whole storehouse of winter training miles behind me, optimistic that my fitness will match my enthusiasm. Then, within the first few miles, my legs turn to Jell-O, and I can’t mentally rise to the challenge of competing well. I adjust my goals from (1) compete for the win, to (2) place in the top five, to (3) hold yourself together, woman. Complete the distance. This is my annual April tradition. Some people plant gardens or clean out the gutters in April. I race poorly and am reconstituted as Jell-O. Jell-O girl: This is a Kafka scenario inspired by Kraft Foods.

Late April

Why does this happen every year?

I have asked myself this question a lot over the years, and I think the explanation is probably the same as why I also seem to race poorly in mid-November: I have a lot on my plate. Mid-November and the end of April are points in the semester when major assignments are due. There are usually a number of administrative tasks and paperwork deadlines. There is a lot of stress—felt and communicated—and I am pretty zapped intellectually. As long as I am in academia, which will be, God-willing, my entire career, I may race poorly in Novembers and Aprils. We probably all have seasons on the calendar like this. It can be helpful to plan our race schedules with these seasons in mind, or—at the very least—to respond graciously to our inevitable floundering if we choose to race anyway.

I am curious about the mechanism by which I regularly fail to rise to the occasion in April and November, so this is what I will address in this column. It may have something to do with the kind of sport ultramarathoning is, which is a deliberative one.

The Concepts

I would like to make a distinction between what I will call “impulse sports” and what I will call “deliberative sports.”

An impulse sport is one for which you act with immediacy from habit.

A deliberative sport is a one for which reflective reasoning plays a more substantial role.

Examples of impulse sports include sprinting, wrestling, and ping-pong, which don’t leave much room for active reflection during play. These sports involve deliberation during practice and before and after competition. However, during the competition, the rules of action are not explicitly reasoned about; they are internal to the play. Furthermore, in an impulse sport, you don’t have time for your mind to wander, or you will fail to react. An example is, you cannot pause to consider whether to strike the ball with the back or front of the paddle. By the time you are done deciding, the ball will have already passed. A ping-pong master will have habituated the appropriate flick of the wrist, suitable for the moment, and will act swiftly and easily in response to the ball.

Conversely, sports like marathoning, ultramarathoning, distance biking, and triathlon are deliberative sports. There is a lot of space for active reflection during the event. I dare you to compete in a marathon and not spend a significant amount of time wondering about future miles, revising fueling and pacing plans, and replaying every single conversation that you have ever had with anyone over the past decade. There is a lot of time to think—about the run and about everything else.

Likely, most sports land somewhere along the spectrum between impulse and deliberative sports. For example, in soccer, players have conversations and strategize in response to new obstacles. Still, a soccer player would be at a disservice if her impulses were not well-ordered such that she could not act immediately and effectively upon receiving the ball. Soccer is somewhere in between impulse and deliberation.

Why This Distinction Matters

This is my way of describing something that we all seem to know: The longer a sporting event is and the more space there is for reflection, the more that what is happening between your ears plays a substantial role in the outcome of the competition. There is more room to actively implode or to eat yourself alive if you are stressed or mentally tired and are attempting to climb mountains alone for hours on end. The deliberative sport distinction provides a vocabulary for me to explain what is happening every time I underperform at the hard parts of the semester. I am physically ready but not mentally fresh enough to manage the reflective time well.

Why this distinction matters right now is that we are collectively experiencing a stressful moment—with COVID-19, forest fires, heightened social discord, and everything else. If these things are weighing on you mentally—and if you are participating in a deliberative sport—you will need to do a better job of managing your thoughts in the event to be able compete well.

Final Thoughts

People often speak as though good preparation is sufficient for a good race—as though it is a forgone conclusion that you will perform well if you do the right kinds of training prior to the event. But if there is one thing I, Jello-O girl, can assure you—it’s that you need to manage your thoughts well, too, because running is a sport for which reflective reasoning plays a substantial role. This is something I don’t do particularly well in April or November.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever contemplated the, ahem, contemplative aspect of ultrarunning?
  • Are there times in your life where ultrarunning’s deliberative aspect serves you well, and others where it offers a greater mental challenge?
  • Do you also play what Sabrina Little calls impulse sports? Can you share thoughts on the differences between them and ultrarunning?

Photo: Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 25 comments

  1. Ondřej

    Several times in a year, I take part in playing outdoor puzzle hunt games. I don’t know whether these events exist in the US, but it’s quite popular in my country (Czechia) and several others. Basically, you have a team of 5, you receive a puzzle on the start, the solution is a positon of the next puzzle, you walk there (no running required, the game is about puzzles), you receive a puzzle… and so on. These games are long (20+ hours) and hard. I mean, the finish rate is usually <5% and even the best teams have their low moments, spent by clueless gazing into a piece of paper, tired and cold.
    It has all the prerequisities to belong among the deliberative activities. And yet, it is not. I can spend almost the whole game immersed in a flow state, thinking only about puzzles. The life and its worries outside the game are effortlessly postponed for these hours. In some way, it's genuinely relaxing (if you don´t count the lack of sleep, lack of proper food and regular feelings that you are getting mentally beaten). This flow, the direct mental connection to the core of the game, is a reason I keep playing these puzzle hunt games for more than 15 years.
    I rarely feel the flow while running the races. Running is definitely a deliberative sport for me. I thought it's because I'm a mid packer in running, while in puzzle hunting, I can compete against the top ones in my country. And that self-confidence helps. So, my conclusion was, that the good runners might spend a good part of their races in a flow state. But based on your article (and some interviews with other good runners), it seems not to be a valid conclusion. The discrepancy between the mental state in (ultra)running and puzzle hunting remains a mystery for me.
    But as usually, your article inspires me to think, thank you for that!

    1. Sabrina Little

      Thanks so much for this comment. Puzzle hunt games sound awesome! I’ve not heard of those, but I would love to give that a try. I also appreciate your thoughts on flow state.

  2. Madeline B Harms

    This is very interesting! I’m also an academic but I’ve often times been able to perform quite well in ultras even while under a lot of stress. For whatever reason, I think I easily reach this flow state in a race (I also can perform well beyond my training quite often), even if there’s a lot of stress in my outside life. I think the business may also keep me from overtraining, which I tend to do if I have too much free time. I tend to have my worst performances in October (after training/racing all summer and being physically depleted).

    1. Sabrina Little

      Madeline, teach me your ways! Sounds like you’re much better at managing your mind during a race. I’m getting better but am definitely not there! And I totally know what you are saying about being drained after a summer of hard running. Thanks for the comment.

    1. Sabrina Little

      Thanks for the comment, @Me. That was my photo. I took it while running, and I am definitely not a professional photographer. I took it with my iPhone. :)

      1. Me

        Sabrina. You’re an incredible runner, I’m sure you’re an awesome Mom, and you’re a grad student. I’m confident you can edit pictures on your iPhone.

        Open up photos, select your photo, click on “edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, click on the crop icon, crop/resize the photo, then click save.

        Happy Friday to you!

    2. Meghan Hicks


      If you’re familiar with iRunFar, then you probably know that we attempt to publish as close to ground level as possible. We endeavor to portray running–and life–in an organic and raw way. We want what you see here to represent real life, not an edited or beautified version of it. Sun-flare effects like those you see in this photo, which naturally occur when you take photos looking into the sun or other bright lights, are included in that. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    3. Tony M

      Extremely rude comment. The author definitely deserved better for putting herself out there. I don’t recall anywhere in the article where the author claimed to be a professional photographer or a professional writer.

  3. Nick

    I think sprinters/short distance runners are artisans. They spend their time perfecting the craft of motion, paying extreme attention to the mechanics and small details. The actual act of racing is art. A perfect 5K appears like an effortless expression of physical humanity.

    On the hand, very long distance runners seem like chaplains. Fathomless hope and optimism, and a bit of naivete, can keep the flame alive. A race is a conflict always beset with tragedy, and almost resembles religious devotion. There is no perfect 100 miler, but at the finish line everyone emerges with a purified spirit.

  4. Will

    When I am in the midst of a heavy work load I don’t run well because my mind uses that time to process the “unfinished” work. My mind is split and I do not run as “free”. The encumbrance hinders. It does help with handling the work. Trade off.

    1. Sabrina

      Thanks for the comment, Will. Interesting. Aristotle wrote that we couldn’t be engaged in both serious physical training and intellectual work at the same time. Maybe he was right.

  5. Wesley

    I also love the photo, Sabrina, which is more beautiful because of these perceived imperfections. Thanks for continuing to write thoughtful articles for our community.

    Your concepts here may speak to why I (and many runners) perform better close to home, when we can sleep in our own beds and are intimately familiar with the course to the extent the race setting actually relaxes us and brings joy. For me, that’s the Ouachita National Forest in my home state of Arkansas.


    Wesley Hunt

  6. Kk


    I find it laughable that the only thing you took away from this insightful article was to troll the person writing it. It shows a lot about your character when you choose to attack when faced with a well written piece that challenges us to change our perceptions and thinking habits. I loved this article and appreciate the real photo! Never mind the true lazy commenters who spew trash from their dorito-crusted fingertips, living in their mother’s basement.

  7. Azriel

    I have not contemplated this. Though you are right. I think.
    The inner chat and the ability to manage it are crucial.
    Sometimes a simple “shut up legs” is enough. Sometimes a whole conversation and recounting of facts is required to remind me where is am and why I am ok… Often it’s all of the above!
    If I go for a 5k…no need to think and I don’t have time to think.

    If I do a weight training session (once a week) I can manage my mind and push through the hard challenges. Because there’s time.
    But when I do a HIIT session (also once a week) with very similar physical challenged I don’t have the time to manage my mind, and find I struggle more to push through.

    I’ll observe myself over the next weeks and see what I learn!
    Thank you!

  8. Lars Laird Iversen

    Thank you, I really enjoy this piece (and your other writings here)! Also, I enjoyed several of the comments, and especially Ondrej’s thought on flow. Flow vs deliberation is worth more thought! I find that the ongoing deliberations in a long, but technically easy run, is not immediately enough to loose myself in – like the flow state implies. If the run is more technical, and I feel that I still can run it fluidly, if I relax and concentrate fully, then I DO lose the sense of time and feel present in the moment. Normally doesn’t last many km though.

    (On a sidenote – I used to play tabletennis at a regional level in high school. I always underperformed, and it was deliberation that got me. I got way too nervous, and was unable to discipline my mind towards the end of the sets. Even a solid lead towards the end would often not be enough. It is a game that is short and sharp ralleys, that certainly are impulsive, but a big part of the game, also during the matches, are the breaks between points – that are certainly deliberative!

  9. tom

    for me, one crucial distinction between sports is “team” or “individual.” in team sports, one can, to an extent, rely on teammates to manage the ups and downs of heightened moments, a sudden goal against, for ex. a volatile temperament in an individual sport can be a problem. i.e. me playing tennis. that same temperament can largely controlled with teammates, me in ice hockey. (plus, i could run into people, which is a good way to express frustration.)

    so when competing in your chosen contest, do you have mates who rely on you and on whom you rely? that’s big.

    maybe form is function. i.e., the fast-twitch athlete (impulse sport) is by nature more inclined to immediacy. the slow-twitch runner more deliberate, chugging along, always under control. (this last conjecture may be nonsense.)

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