On Perseverance in Running and Life

Advice on persevering in training and in life.

By on January 17, 2024 | Comments

A couple of months ago, I went running with a local friend — professional ultrarunner and triathlete, Sika Henry. It was a beautiful morning, albeit unseasonably warm. Our objective was an 18-mile run along a path in Williamsburg, Virginia.

At 10 miles, we felt great.

By 12 miles, less so.

By 14 miles, we both grew quiet.

“What do you think about to keep going when you feel tired and want to stop?” Sika asked.

“I can tell you what I used to think about,” I told her. “I used to be driven by curiosity. I used to think, You have come so far. Don’t you want to see what you could accomplish if you continued?

“What do you think about now?” Sika asked.

“I think maybe I should stop,” I told her.

We laughed. Maybe I should stop.

Sabrina Little persevering to the end of the 2017 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Photo: Drymax Socks/Bob MacGillivray

When It Is Tough to Continue

If you have been in the sport of ultrarunning for a while, you may have experienced a similar kind of training lull. Running aside, you may have experienced this type of lull in some other area of life — struggling to complete work projects, finish schooling, continue relationships, or otherwise.

Certainly, you are not alone if extended runs sometimes feel impossibly long, or if, amidst a difficult project, you are unsure whether you can continue. Perseverance is hard.

Currently, I am returning to form after a busy work year and the birth of my second daughter. I have run a lot this past year, consistently and healthily, but I have not run far. And, while I remember what it takes — in terms of habits of attention and self-governance — to complete long training runs, it will take a while before my legs catch up. I need to practice running far, repeatedly, to be able to do so well. I need to grow in perseverance.

This is not the first time I have written about perseverance in this column, and it will probably not be the last. Perseverance is a critical virtue for endurance athletes, and it is what I am focused on developing now. So, here are a few clarifications about what it is, and some lessons I have learned while trying to develop it.

The Concept

Perseverance is defined as “persisting long in something good until it is accomplished (1).” It is the virtue of endurance, or of “staying in place.” Unlike constancy, which is the disposition to stand firm against external difficulties, perseverance’s object is internal to its task, and its difficulty “arises from the very continuance of the act (2).”

Stated differently, remaining with a task is challenging in itself, whether or not there are any external impediments to our progress (3). This will be unsurprising to a distance runner. We know that enduring is difficult.

As we run, we acutely feel the strain of perseverance in our legs and in our lungs. Often, in these moments, the toughest thing we can do is to continue to put one foot in front of the other, or to keep doing what we are already doing. Sometimes, as I confessed to Sika that day, the difficulty of “remaining in place” seems insurmountable. In those moments, I entertain the possibility that I should stop.

An exhausted runner hugs a post.

An exhausted runner pauses toward the end of the 2022 Diagonale des Fous. Photo: Kirsten Kortebein

Developing Perseverance

As with many virtues, the way to develop perseverance is, simply, by persevering. We practice “remaining in place” until we become reliably disposed to do so. And while some people have high physical durability, a good running economy, or some other natural talent that supports endurance performance better than others, we can all improve, relative to ourselves, in our ability to persevere.

Here are my best pieces of advice for doing so.

1. Delay Decisions

Recently, I started an interval workout. Pretty early on, it became difficult — more difficult than I anticipated. So, I stopped.

Frankly, even I was surprised that I stopped. It was an impulse decision in the face of unanticipated discomfort. I gave myself a moment to muster up some enthusiasm, and then I restarted the workout and saw it through to completion.

Back when I coached middle and high school cross country, I told the runners to continue for a minute longer when they felt like giving in. It was only a minute. But often, the terrible feelings would subside, and the effort would become manageable again.

That’s the thing about “hitting the wall.” Often there is life on the other side of it. If you just ride the wave of negative feelings — and not make any impulsive decisions when they strike — you can often push past them. It helps to know this in the middle of a difficult run.

2. Bring a Friend

Any time I want to exceed my fitness level, I run with a friend. I can run further and faster, at an easier effort, when I am not alone, and I am not unique in this. Psychologists describe a phenomenon called “social motivation,” whereby the presence of others increases one’s drive toward goals and improves effort (4).

Also, anecdotally, I have noticed my running buddies and I rarely feel terrible at the same time. We can lean on each other through the difficult moments, drawing on each other’s strength.

In case you are wondering, despite mounting fatigue, Sika and I did finish the 18-mile run. Our final mile was our fastest. Had I been alone, I am not sure that would have been the case.

Two runners on dirt road

Training with a friend is a great way to ensure perseverance. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

3. Have a Graded Approach

As I write this, it is the first week of classes at the university where I teach. I start each semester by discussing with students their perseverance, in connection to their ability to self-govern.

Often, when students read philosophy texts for the first time, they are intimidated. They cannot pay attention for very long, or do not want to. They are distracted or turned aside by their devices — finding themselves clicking on iPhones instead of focusing on the task at hand.

I tell my students that, first of all, philosophy texts take me a long time to read, too. There is nothing wrong with them if they perceive the work as difficult. It is difficult.

Second, I tell them to put their iPhones away, preferably in another room. This is the contemporary academic’s version of binding themselves to the mast, as Odysseus did, in recognition that he would be too weak to resist the enticements of the Sirens on his journey home.

Lastly, in the same way that they could not enter a gym and pick up 50-pound dumbbells on their first trip, they should not expect to be able to complete a difficult reading all at once, the first time they try.

When we commit to arduous goods — like long runs, philosophy texts, or weight training — we should expect these things to be difficult. In committing to these goods, we have to grow to become the kind of people capable of accomplishing them. This growth happens over weeks and years, not all at once. So, running far means committing to a lengthy developmental process.

None of this is new or surprising information. But, for me, it is nice to remember that progress is an inch worm, not a kangaroo. Weekly, I inch forward, in the direction I want to go. I am not a lost cause when my first attempts to endure are unimpressive.

Odysseus and the Sirens - painting

Artist John William Waterhouse’s depiction of Odysseus and the Sirens. Image: John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Know Your Why

This sounds cheesy (5), but it is important. Reasons to quit will always present themselves over the course of a long run. These reasons will shout at you when you are tired. So, you need to know why you are out there, trying to run far in the first place.

Maybe you are curious about your limits. Maybe you enjoy the activity in itself. Maybe you are trying to steward your abilities well. Figure out your “why,” because you will require a good reason to continue at some point, deep into a long run.

Knowing your “why” is also important because it clarifies the character of your enduring. Not all instances of persistence qualify as the virtue of perseverance. Perseverance involves committing to good ends, for suitable reasons.

For example, persisting in a life of crime is not an excellence of persons. And persevering in training, when doing so crowds out worthier commitments in your life, is not excellent either. Take the time to investigate the nature and objectives of your perseverance. Doing so is an important part of examining how running fits into a good and flourishing life.

Final Thoughts

Perseverance is an excellence that benefits our life as much outside of the sport — in work, relationships, and intellectual pursuits — as in it. Thankfully, distance running provides the perfect opportunity to develop this virtue — to practice “staying in place” and persisting through difficulty, in pursuit of worthy ends.

Call for Comments

  • Do you struggle with being persistent in your running and other areas of life?
  • Have you discovered any hacks that help you with staying in place?


  1. Aquinas, “Summa Theologiae” II.2.137.1
  2. Aquinas, “Summa Theologiae” II.2.137.2–3.
  3. Little, “The Examined Run.” Oxford University Press, 2024. pp. 129-130.
  4. Le Bouc and M. Pessiglione, Imaging Social Motivation: Distinct Brain Mechanisms Drive Effort Production during Collaboration versus Competition, “Journal of Neuroscience” 33 (2013): 15894–15902.
  5. Much like perseverance, cheese helps me run further.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.