Running on Intellectual Virtues

Sabrina Little writes about the importance of intellectual virtues in running.

By on January 18, 2023 | Comments

In early high school, I had dubious race tactics. For cross-country meets, I would sprint off the start line and run as fast as I possibly could for the first mile. Then I would hang on and try to neither lose the race nor die for the final 2.1 miles. Brilliant.

I ran this way because I felt uneasy waiting in the pack, biding my time for a late-race duel. I was afraid to wait. I wanted to decide the results of my races immediately — to effectively put away the competition as soon as I could so that I could breathe again, having secured the victory whenever doing so was feasible. But this was not a great way to mete out my efforts, and my strategy was costly, both in terms of race times and my enjoyment of the experience. It took me a couple of years of high school before I learned how to compete at a level commensurate with my fitness. To compete well, I needed to grow in courage and practical wisdom, an intellectual virtue.

A young Sabrina Little (left) during her high school running days. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

A young Sabrina Little (left) during her high school running days. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

The Concept

Intellectual virtues are excellences of reason. They are traits that support our flourishing as thinkers. Philosopher Nathan King defines them as traits that assist us in “getting truth, knowledge, and understanding, but also to our keeping and sharing them (1).” Examples include practical wisdom, curiosity, carefulness, intellectual courage, and fair-mindedness.

We may be inclined to think that intellectual virtues are irrelevant in the athletic context. Competition is not ordered toward intellectual goods, and we certainly do not talk about them very much at track practice.

Moreover, athletics is often understood as an activity as opposed to academics: One treats the body; the other treats the mind. But this is not strictly true. Learning is meant to be active and embodied — it is supposed to transform the way we live and move in the world. And athletics both shapes and is shaped by the excellences and deficiencies of our minds. In both academics and athletics, body and mind are involved. And, in both academics and athletics, we have the potential to shape our bodies and minds for good and for ill.

I can personally attest to the relevance of intellectual virtues to running. I have ruined many races because of failures of reason when my fitness was fine. To compete well and to occupy the sport in a healthy way, it helps to be excellent thinkers. We need intellectual virtues.

Which intellectual virtues are relevant to distance running? There are many. Here are a few examples.

1. Practical Wisdom

Practical wisdom is “right thinking plus action,” or prudence. In the classical tradition, it is one of the four cardinal virtues, which means it is a “hinge” virtue. Other virtues “hinge” or depend on prudence for their development, which is a key ingredient in a flourishing life.

Practical wisdom is also a key ingredient in a happy athletic life. Prudent runners can act well across various situations. They make good choices in training and racing, knowing when to accelerate and when to hold back, when to work harder, and when to rest. This makes it an invaluable virtue, but it is also not an easy virtue to acquire.

Practical wisdom is often impeded by rogue and outsized emotions, as I described regarding my high school racing above. I had a difficult time making good choices when I was ruled by fear. I had to address that fear, develop courage, and practice choosing well in workouts and races to become a stronger competitor. It takes time and practice to choose well. It also takes treating other vices — such as cowardice, in my case — which may impede its expression.

A more mature Sabrina Little, having won the 2018 Cayuga Trails 50 Mile.

A more mature Sabrina Little, having won the 2018 Cayuga Trails 50 Mile.

2. Wisdom

About a year ago, I wrote about two vices of perseverance — irresolution and intransigence. The irresolute runner is fickle. She is insufficiently committed to her objectives. But equally problematic is pertinacity, or intransigence — an excess with respect to continuation. I wrote that there are two ways in which we may exhibit intransigence — stubbornly committing to goals past the point when they make sense and committing to ends that are not worthwhile in the first place.

To guard against intransigence — specifically, to guard against the kind of intransigence that is committed to unsuitable goals — we need to be able to recognize which goals are worthy of our energy and attention. To do so, we need wisdom.

Wisdom is the virtue of knowing what has value. Considering the high level of dedication required to accomplish some of our athletic feats — and the potential that accomplishing these feats has for crowding out a love of other things — wisdom is important for helping us navigate our investments. The wise runner knows what to prioritize and how to order her loves.

3. Intellectual Autonomy

Intellectual autonomy is an excellence of self-directed thinking or thinking for oneself. This virtue matters for runners because there is a lot of bad advice about training, racing, and nutrition in the endurance community. This is especially true online, where the advice we encounter is often thinly veiled marketing campaigns for various products and programs. It is important to take responsibility for sifting through this information and checking sources to avoid gimmicks and act in healthy and productive ways.

I have two clarifications about this virtue. First, autonomy should not be confused with irreverence toward those with legitimate expertise. There are great coaches and well-trained dieticians, for example. Sometimes leaning into their authority is helpful and the best use of one’s freedom.

Second, autonomy is a developmental virtue. By this, I mean that it becomes more relevant as we mature and grow in knowledge, self-awareness, and responsibility. Young runners are not generally well-positioned for autonomy or to choose well for themselves regarding their training and racing. However, ceding their care to a coach or authority figure means young athletes are in a vulnerable position of receiving bad advice or being under the influence of bad actors. I wrote about these concerns in another article about accountability.

4. Teachability

“Docilitas,” or teachability, is the virtue of receptivity to the guidance of others or the willingness to learn from others. This is a virtue that requires us to be humble enough to listen well and address our knowledge deficits.

Teachability is a helpful virtue for runners. The ability to listen and benefit from the experiences and expertise of others is a shortcut for figuring out what might otherwise take us years — such as how to climb different grades well, when to use poles, how often to eat and hydrate during races, and which countries use switchbacks and which countries have runners proceed directly up mountains. When we are teachable, our knowledge grows tremendously, and we can be better prepared for competitions.

Why Intellectual Virtues Matter

What if I told you there was a way to improve your race times without having to improve your fitness? And what if this means of improvement was completely legal and cost no money, was admirable, and better positioned you for a happy life outside of running, too? You would probably be interested. Practical wisdom is performance-enhancing in this way. The prudent racer outperforms the imprudent one, all other variables held constant.

Teachability is likewise performance-enhancing, helping us to be better prepared for races. Wisdom may not enhance performances, but it assists us in knowing which performances are worth our while in the first place. And autonomy helps us to hold our own in a world with a lot of conflicting — and often bad — information about training and health.

It is good to develop intellectual virtues for reasons outside of the sport, but they are certainly relevant to distance running, too. To compete well and to occupy the sport in a healthy way, it helps to be excellent thinkers.

Call for Comments

  • Did this article resonate with you?
  • Have you found yourself racing impatiently, as the author describes in her younger days?
  • Have some of the virtues the author describes come to you through experience and maturity?


  1. King, Nathan L. “The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtues for Everyday Life.” Oxford University Press, 2021.
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.