The Worth of Physical Work

An essay about the worth of physical work.

By on August 21, 2019 | Comments

I still remember the pain of my first ever cross-country race. I was a sophomore in high school, and, although I had played sports my entire life, I had never experienced the lung burn and desperation I felt running across the grass fields that day at full speed for five kilometers. I thought I must be doing something wrong because the discomfort was almost more than I could take. When my coach congratulated me at the finish line, all high fives and smiles, and asked me how my first race went, I leaned on a pole, my whole world spinning, and I said, “It was nice.”

It was nice. It was also uncomfortable.

When I first started running, I used to wait on the glorious day when racing hard wouldn’t hurt anymore—when I would become so strong and well-trained that ‘fast’ would feel easy. I am still waiting.

As that season progressed and my fitness grew, and then years passed, and finally a decade, I gave up on the idea of progressing beyond discomfort because discomfort is a part of the process—not always, but sometimes, and definitely when you are pressing your limits. The truth is, ‘fast’ is a moving target. Over time, you become better at distinguishing discomfort from pain and at perceiving where your personal limits are. You lose that feeling of desperation and realize you are not actually in a state of physical emergency when your heart rate rises. But the difficulty of fast running never completely goes away. Stated differently: Fitness is feeling like you’re dying at a much faster pace than you used to feel like you were dying at.

So, no. I couldn’t outrun the discomfort. But the difficulty of the sport would be an occasion for growth, and I would be edified through those uncomfortable moments. I would train my body and learn my limits, and it would impact my character. This would be part of my education.

The Worth of Physical Work

I have written in the past about the value of physical training for character formation, a tactic used by the ancients as a propaedeutic to learning. Gymnastics (and poetry) were applied at the beginning of education to transform a learner’s affections and to make him or her disciplined enough to be teachable. Today, I want to again highlight the importance of physical work in character education because of our current cultural circumstances. Namely, creating opportunities for physical training is becoming increasingly valuable in a western world where—because of screens and convenience culture—we don’t need to use our bodies as much anymore. A consequence of this shift is that we lose a lot of opportunities to be shaped by embodied activities.

In a recent book by Andy Crouch, The Tech Wise Family, he writes about the age of devices—of iPhones, screens, and gadgets. (1) He does not write in a dismissive way, eschewing these things altogether. Crouch says he has all of those devices, and I do, too. Rather, he provides guidelines for incorporating them as part of a flourishing life. He also describes cultural losses from this shifting focus on gadgets. One is a loss of embodied, formative activities.

One of Crouch’s examples is that, decades ago, when we talked about playing music in the evenings, it was presumed that we would be the ones playing that music—sitting down to the piano or taking out a violin. Now, when we play music, it usually means pressing a button. This access to music is wonderful, but it is also passive, rather than active. And it represents a missed opportunity to use our bodies in a disciplined way—to cultivate a skill set, to callus our hands and work on our posture, and to be physically transformed by the act of playing. He writes, “The biggest problem with most screen-based activities is that because they are designed to keep us engaged, we can learn them far too quickly. They ask too little of us and make the world too simple. To learn to play an acoustic guitar requires hundreds of hours of practice involving physical strength and stamina, the development of calluses on the hand (usually the left) that holds down the strings, the ability to hear tiny variations of tone and timbre as we pluck and strum at different speeds and angle and to adjust our movements accordingly. A ‘guitar app,’ on the other hand, vastly oversimplifies all these dimensions of embodied music-making, replacing them with a skill that is far more easily acquired and requires far less learning.” (2)

In a similar vein, in Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford describes “a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent.” (3) As part of a broader commentary on the devaluation of craftsmanship in western culture, Crawford talks about the formative dimensions of physical work as well: He writes about how working with our hands can shape us by offering an affront to our self-affirmation, narcissism, and “delusions of omnipotence” in ways that our technologies often prevent us from experiencing. When we use our bodies, this work “chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture” (4) because we are beholden to physical limits and to the resistance of objects to our will.

Crawford is speaking specifically about craftsmanship in this passage, but it is true for us as runners, too. When we do physical work, it becomes very clear that we have limits and weaknesses. Our bodies push back against our wills. Mine, for example, has never run quite as fast as I wanted it to. And our bodies are transformed by our work in the way Crouch describes—growing our strength and stamina in an active rather than passive way, and in an arduous rather than “asking too little of us” kind of way. The fact that running is difficult—invariably difficult—at whatever pace happens to be ‘fast’ for us at the moment, means our “delusions of omnipotence” are challenged on a regular basis.

Final Thoughts

It is not lost on me that, apart from running, my most physically strenuous daily task is lifting the Collected Works of Plato. I sit all day. And this is before I consider all of the technologies that make my life easier and less “embodied.” And I think this is a fairly common predicament—a seated life, or one without any obvious forms of physical discipline.

I am probably preaching to the choir here, telling runners to run. But I think it is important to seek out opportunities to be “chastened” by physical work and to be transformed by practices—musical, athletic, or otherwise. Running is a great way to do this, particularly because of the transformative nature of the training—that consistent practice yields growth—and because it is so reliably uncomfortable. We fail a lot, and this failure can shield us from—as Crawford describes—delusions of omnipotence in an otherwise comfortable culture.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Besides running, what full-body, physical practices do you engage in?
  • What effects do forms of physical activity have on you that intellectual activities don’t?


  1. Crouch, Andy. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2017.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. p. 10.
  4. Ibid.
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.