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The Riddle of Will

Sabrina Little writes about willpower in our relationship with running.

By on December 16, 2020 | 16 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I ran down my driveway, then up a hill to enter my favorite road loop. It was a bitter cold December day, still dark, and sleeting, and I tightened the hood of my rain jacket so that only my eyes were exposed to the conditions. It was still nice, though. Rainy runs are only uncomfortable while you are still getting wet. Once you are wet, they remain the same level of bad, at least for a while. Afterward, a friend who drove past me that morning told me, “You are the reason why people say runners are crazy.” For good or for ill, I had not considered staying home.


It seems like any time I talk to a non-athlete about training, there is a disconnect between how I envision my daily schedule and how they envision it. They say something about how I must have great willpower to get myself out the door every morning, to eat well, and to stretch, but this does not describe my situation. I am not, for the most part, exercising my willpower at all. There are some exceptions to this: On particularly egregious weather mornings and on days when I have a lot of work to do, I sometimes linger on the possibility of staying indoors. But, in general, I do not struggle to motivate myself to run. I act from habits and affections, not from choice or from will.

The Concept

Willpower is choice or volition, and it is often used to describe situations in which one selects an arduous good—something that is difficult but better in some way than the easier option. An example is forcing yourself to complete homework instead of watching Netflix, or to eat carrots rather than bonbons. People will laud your willpower in resisting these temptations. The notion of willpower captures the ability to freely choose or self-govern, to exercise rational control over your appetites.

Willpower is a perennial topic in the history of philosophy, although it looks different on different accounts, and it is more important for some philosophers than for others. For example, Aristotle does not speak of willpower. Rather, he emphasizes acting from well-formed emotions. But he does write about “akrasia,” which is a lack of self-restraint or a failure to self-govern well in the process of developing virtue, which amounts to something like a failure of will. Willpower, or something like it, becomes more important for Stoics like Epictetus, for whom “prohairesis”—free, deliberate choice—and self-management are central in the flourishing life. About 300 years after Epictetus, Augustine wrote an entire dialogue on freedom of the will, describing defects in our choosing. Then Immanuel Kant took up the mantle of willpower, defining good actions as those which are done from and in accordance with duty. More recently, a social psychologist named Roy Baumeister has argued that our will is like a muscle (1). We can strengthen it with practice, and it fatigues when it is overexercised.

The differences among these thinkers amount to:

  • whether virtuous actions consist of good choices,
  • how much freedom we have to make good choices, and
  • the role of reason, versus the emotions, in the flourishing life.

Admittedly, I am rhetorically drawn to Baumeister’s project (because there is something appealing to an athlete about the idea of strengthening willpower like a muscle…), but I am wary of his project on three counts: First, Baumeister’s psychological studies have failed to replicate, so we should not be too confident in the conclusions he draws. Second, as I described earlier, I think that my athletic progress is sustained by affection and habit, rather than by reason and choice. And, third, it seems that a sturdier foundation for a flourishing life is to invest time in building the right affections and habits, rather than practicing the exertion of one’s will. It is tiring to have to continually choose the right things. It is easier to love the right things and let your loves dictate your actions. This inclines me toward Aristotle’s view.

So, which is the best model? Are good actions sustained by willpower, emotions, or a mixture of both? Do reasons and emotions play the same role throughout your life, or does one become more important as you mature? I often tell my students that when we discuss questions with big disagreements, that they should take a stake in them and add their own voices to the tradition of inquiry. I hope you will do this with me. What role does willpower play in your running life, or in your life more generally?

The Beginnings

After eighth grade, my best friend, Kari, and I started summer training. She was preparing for the high school cross country team, and I was preparing for soccer. We both decided that 6 a.m. was the best time of the day to complete our runs together. In what I now understand to be a highly unsophisticated training plan, we met up every morning on the stretch of road between our two houses, warmed up, ran two miles as fast as we possibly could, then did a cool down mile before heading home.

In those days, running was novel. It was not a habit. I barely enjoyed it, and I had to continually choose to make it a priority. Some days, the only thing that got me out the door was the thought of Kari standing alone on that stretch of road, waiting for me to run. I raise this story because, while my running is not sustained by willpower now, maybe it once was. Maybe willpower, or something like it, is needed in the formation of good habits but becomes less important later.

Final Thoughts

Sunshine, darkness, clouds, or sleet, you will usually find me in my sneakers. But I think it is habit and my affection for the activity, rather than the sheer force of will, that sustains my running on a regular basis. Maybe willpower, or something like it, is required from time to time to secure non-habituated arduous goods, such as to complete a tough, mountainous 100-miler. In that situation, you may have to will yourself to the finish line, rather than proceed on rightly-ordered pleasures. Moreover, I think willpower is required to establish good habits in the first place. But, in general, it seems that willpower is a smaller part of the athletic life than many people assume.

Call for Comments

  • Where do you land among this riddle of willpower?


  1. F. Baumeister, J. Tierney (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Publishing).

Michael Wardian finishes the 2018 Hardrock 100 in the pouring rain. Photo: iRunFar

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 US champion and World silver medalist, and she previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200K distances.