The Optimization Craze: When Optimizing Ourselves for Athletics Conflicts With Living a Good Life

A beautiful life and an optimized life may not be the same thing.

By on May 15, 2024 | Comments

The best ultramarathon of my life was unplanned. I was coming off another race, so I cleared my schedule for recovery. But my body felt great sooner than expected. A week before the race, I signed up and scheduled my travel. I did not have enough time to locate my typical gels, so I improvised my fueling plan. I did not have enough time to worry either.

That day, I found myself running for hours in the elusive flow state, grateful to be there. It was one of the few times I have left an event feeling like I got the most out of myself on race day.

This was funny to me because the race was unscheduled. Nothing — training, nutrition, or sleep — was optimized for the event. Maybe this speaks to my inability to periodize training adequately. I am so bad at peaking my training that I ran my best race without foresight.

But I sometimes wonder whether paying outsized attention to optimizing our bodies misses the mark. For example, I can’t track joy on a fitness tracker, but joy plays a considerable role in my racing.

Sabrina Little living the good life

A beautiful life and an optimized life may not be the same thing. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

What Is Optimization?

By optimization, I mean a heightened focus on maximizing physical outcomes, which broadly characterizes discussions of health in the sports and fitness industries today. You can live with precision. You can optimize biomarkers and track sleep. You can perform precise amounts of training — no more and no less than you can absorb. And you can eat (I mean, “fuel”) precisely. You can hit the exact number of macronutrients you require, adjusted to your training. You can optimize everything.

There are a few related trends. There is the anti-aging craze which sees growing old as inherently problematic. For example, we should wipe away all signs from our skin that indicate we ever smiled; removing smile lines with collagen is imperative. Also, nothing is gained from a long life except for shame that your body reflects the fact that it lived.

And there is biohacking, which refers to a range of changes a person can make to trick the body to perform at a higher level. One example is cold plunges. Another is hanging upside-down. A third is drinking “raw water” (1). Biohacking is sometimes a means by which optimization occurs.

Optimization tools can be helpful, particularly in a sport won by increasingly smaller margins. If you want to run a personal best, then paying attention to sleep and nutrition, with greater precision, is beneficial. Also, becoming healthy is not a trivial concern. We get one body for life and should probably steward it well.

But it may be worth mentioning that — beyond short seasons of high-performance focus — there are worries about letting optimization dictate how we live our lives. As I see it, there are at least three problems with ordering our lives in this way.

1. A Beautiful Life and an Optimized Life Are Not the Same Thing.

Like most runners, I wear a GPS watch. And, like most runners, I am thrilled when the light on my watch switches from “maintaining” to “productive.” It is satisfying to make progress in an area of life about which I care a great deal — running.

But “productive” on the GPS watch only concerns my body. It is not a measure of whether I am productive in ways that extend beyond the sport, and it does not tell me whether I am living a good life.

Ironically, sometimes when my watch reads “unproductive,” I am actually at my best as a whole human. It means I am invested in my community or working long hours on writing projects, which impedes my ability to complete my mileage. Other times, “unproductive” means I was up late with my kids, so my body can’t run fast. I am not optimized, but my life is well-ordered.

Sometimes “unoptimized” means I am being a good friend. When you care about your friends, you bear their burdens. So, your cortisol goes up. High cortisol is a contraindication of health and longevity, where optimization is concerned. But I would rather spend my life caring about other people than maximize my longevity, whatever the cost.

I am saying that perhaps people like Gandhi or Mother Theresa had poor biomarkers because their work was stressful, but they lived exceedingly good lives. A beautiful life and an optimized life are not the same thing.

2. Optimization Is a Controlling Stance.

In my first year of graduate school, I lived upstairs in an elderly woman’s house in New Haven, Connecticut. She was wonderful. In those days, I was more precise about my training, considerably more precise than I am now.

As a sign of affection, this woman sometimes cooked for me — fried foods, sweet treats, and heavy foods. These were non-optimal foods, where training was concerned. I could have met those gifts with ingratitude, unwilling to compromise a nutrition plan for the sake of training. Or, I could have accepted the hospitality of a wonderful host and put training nutrition where it belonged — as having secondary importance to the people in my life.

This is the second concern with letting maximizing health outcomes dictate the way we live our lives. It sometimes comes at the cost of being present with other people.

Philosopher David McPherson uses the distinction of meeting the world with a choosing-controlling stance, versus an accepting-appreciating stance. The first approaches life with an agenda — to overcome or improve it. The second approaches life with gratitude and appreciation.

There is a place for both stances in a full life, but, according to McPherson, accepting-appreciating should be primary and constrain how we strive (2). If we count protein units or are transfixed by maximizing recovery, this can impede our ability to appreciate the world. It can prevent us from experiencing gratitude for a good gift.

Sabrina Little with her toddler

Sabrina Little with an unoptimized but well-ordered life.

3. You Can Biohack, but You Can’t Virtue-Hack.

Character matters. It matters in our friendships and our families. It matters in the work that we do. It also matters in sports. The virtues (such as patience) and vices (such as envy) that constitute our character impact our performance in training and races (3).

Maybe we can biohack our metabolisms or invent little tricks to recover more quickly. But some of the best work we can do to improve as athletes and as people is to grow in virtue — patience, perseverance, integrity, and joy.

These are not quick fixes. Growing in character takes time and intentional effort, but it is worth it to help us flourish individually and in our communities. If you are excited about optimizing your body, wait until you hear about becoming a more excellent instance of your kind, as a human being (4).

Final Thoughts

Lately, discussions about biohacking and optimization have made me uneasy. Perhaps this is because, if my life is optimized for anything right now, it is for toddlers.

Or maybe this is because “optimization” is a teleological concept; it implies some end, or goal. It is often unclear to me when people speak of optimizing whether they have a clear vision of a good life in mind. We can tinker and biohack, but what are we optimizing for?

I don’t assume this way of framing health will go away any time soon, but I hope we can think about our lives in grander terms than the narrow vision that optimization offers.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever found yourself optimizing your life for running and missing out on other important aspects?
  • Do you find the endless data we have access to as runners beneficial to your overall happiness, or detrimental?


  1. J. Hamblin. 13 March 2019. 7 Biohacks to Master before Worrying about Other Biohacks. The Atlantic. Web <> Accessed 4 May 2024.
  2. David McPherson. (2021). The Virtues of Limits. Oxford University Press, pp. 5, 17, 21-22.
  3. See S. Little. (2024). The Examined Run. Oxford University Press.
  4. See Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
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.