Toughness Reconsidered

It is the first week of cross-country practice. Our team is sitting in the shade of a gazebo outside of the school, writing down season goals on index cards. A runner raises the idea of team t-shirts, and conversations erupt about all of the possible colors, styles, and slogans. Some of the slogans are very bad, and I look over at my assistant husband (my full-time husband, who serves as my assistant coach) and grimace. I want the athletes to take ownership of the team and its culture, shirts included, but I have a deep-rooted antipathy for bad running t-shirt slogans.

The greatest offenders to me are “no pain, no gain,” “pain is weakness leaving the body,” and other variations on this theme. It should go without saying, but not all forms of pain or toughness are constructive. From my perspective, a problem with these slogans is the lionizing of physical damages, which—even if only rhetorical in most cases—is alarming.

The Concepts

In Books II and III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes the kind of education required for the guardians of his City in Speech. Their education has two aspects:

  1. poetry (storytelling or music), and
  2. gymnastics (athletics).

The goal of gymnastics is to cultivate spiritedness, which manifests itself in “savageness and hardness” (410d). The goal of poetry is to soften the guardians and to make them philosophic. Through a combination of poetry and gymnastics, the souls of the guardians are “tuned to the proper degree of tension and relaxation” (412a). They become well-ordered. But a key is, the guardians need to participate in the right kinds of activities, at an appropriate intensity. Socrates observes of the person who spends too much time focused on athletics that he becomes too spirited and is “like a wild beast… he lives ignorantly and awkwardly without rhythm or grace” (411e). Likewise, in the Politics, Aristotle observes of the person who plays sports too intensely that there are long-term negative repercussions for his physical constitution (1339a).

Take it From Me, a Wild Beast.

I point this out to say that athletics comes by its reputation for toughness honestly, and this need not be a bad thing. In the classical tradition, athletics served the role of making learners tough, disciplined, and emotionally resilient. In large part, this role has not changed. Generally today, if you ask parents why they have placed Johnny in Little League, they will say something about how they want him to be tough. Moreover, the qualities we often praise in an athlete include grit, fortitude, and brazenness—qualities that pertain to his or her thumos, or spiritedness.

But toughness is not an unqualified good. As Socrates and Aristotle allude to, this toughness-building feature of sport can go awry. We can become too spirited and unresponsive to reasons. We can damage our bodies. Furthermore, at its worst, athletics seems to celebrate forms of suffering that are at odds with a flourishing life. An example is confusing running through injury as toughness. This is not toughness. In most cases, this is just imprudence.

Edifying Discomforts

It is 7 a.m. I am on a cross-country field somewhere in the middle of Texas, having a conversation with an athlete about the difference between pain and discomfort. “Pain signals a problem,” I tell her. “Discomfort just means you are working hard.” She fears discomfort altogether, so she keeps racing at a gingerly trot. But a certain amount of productive discomfort is part of the sport, and it is part of an embodied life in general. It is good for us. It makes us better.

These conversations are challenging, particularly for young athletes who lack enough experience to know the difference between productive and unproductive forms of suffering and injury. It can be hard to recognize when “toughness” crosses the line from edifying to imprudent, and it does not help that I largely lack a vocabulary for explaining the difference in clearer terms. It also does not help that the boundary between productive and unproductive forms of suffering is constantly in flux as our fitness changes. These boundaries also change season to season, and they are different for each athlete. What I want my athlete to know is that our priority, even through discomfort, is stewarding our bodies well. We can be edified by discomfort without doing damage. “No pain, no gain” and its sister slogans fail to communicate this nuance.

Toughness Reconsidered

For whatever reason—maybe a lack of a vocabulary around suffering, a poor cultural imagination for what toughness can look like in a well-ordered life, or the fact that we rarely read Plato before cross-country practice—the boundaries of productive toughness are not often discussed in our sport. We don’t talk about how suffering fits into the flourishing life, how much discomfort is appropriate, or what sorts of pains are beneficial. And it seems clear we need to be having these conversations.

From what I can tell, there is sometimes an odd bravado in our sport around pain, which celebrates being destroyed by our training as though this is an unqualified good. I often hear runners describe racing with injuries or through pain as a badge of honor, and this seems like a problem. I also think many athletes participate in extreme events without considerations of long-term physical repercussions or consequences on character. Maybe there are no repercussions. Maybe the classical tradition is wrong to suppose there are. But, personally, I have a hard time reading these passages in Plato and Aristotle and then lacing up my sneakers without asking myself some hard questions about my participation in sport. That is why I am raising them here.

To be clear, I think there are ways to train and race with a clear conscience. I stand with the classical tradition in seeing gymnastics as a valuable means for character and physical development, if managed well. But I worry about what we forfeit in the celebration of toughness without qualifications—in our t-shirt slogans and daily training.

Final Thoughts

Maybe you think I am taking t-shirt slogans too seriously, and I probably am. That is what my students get for having a philosopher as a cross-country coach. But I think there are important questions we should be asking about how well we are taking care of our bodies in this sport, and whether all forms of toughness contribute equally to a flourishing life.

Call for Comments

  • What can you say about your relationship with what Sabrina Little calls productive and unproductive discomfort in running?
  • And how about in the rest of life?
  • How has your relationship with toughness evolved over the course of your life?
Texas snowstorm

Photo: iRunFar

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 21 comments

  1. Devon

    Love this Sabrina, as always! I think one of the prevalent ways I’ve seen this unbalance manifest in ultrarunning is the idea of “death before DNF”. There are many people who glorify this as the highest ideal, but I think, as you point out, it lacks a fundamental balance and foresight for its repurcussions.

  2. Andy M

    New t-shirt slogan: “some pain, some brain.” Neither Socratic nor Aristotelian in its elegance but it’s parsimonious and, hey, it’s a t-shirt :)

  3. Patrick

    I understand what the slogans are getting at, but you’re very right to call them out as imprecise language which could lead to problems later. When I was younger, I had a hard time distinguishing between discomfort and pain. But it didn’t matter much because when I was in “pain,” it was almost always just discomfort, and pushing through was the correct thing. I wasn’t capable of pushing myself to injury, because I wasn’t very tough. Now that my toughness and age have greatly increased, I’m very capable of pushing myself to injury, so it really matters to be able to tell the difference between pain and discomfort, and having the vocabulary to do so is very useful.

    1. Sabrina

      I think you’re right that most of what we call “pain” as kids is actually discomfort. It’s awesome that you can tell the difference now. I agree about the importance of having a vocabulary to capture the difference. Thanks for your comment!

  4. John Vanderpot

    Curiously, here in very middle middle-age running and poetry have become my go-to activities, some of both almost every day, yet as a younger man, and a very committed/competitive wrestler, we didn’t get injured, we just used more tape…what I’d give now to go back and coach that guy!

    1. Sabrina

      That is awesome that you do poetry on a regular basis! Haha yeah, I sometimes look back at my younger self and wish I could coach myself, too. Hindsight…

  5. Will

    Great article, Sabrina! This sums up well something I’ve been struggling a bit with as a coach. Separating pain and discomfort makes so much sense. Some athletes need to embrace discomfort more while others need to recognize pain and take a step back.

  6. Joseph

    This article resonates with me. I do hope the students you are coaching listen to this wisdom. I have a long list of nagging injuries from my younger years that severely impact what I can do because my main mentors and role models were of the excessively macho no-pain-no-gain tribe, and I confused abusing my body (and mind) with toughening my body (and mind). The two are not the same, as I’ve finally come to realize, but are conflated with mantras like no-pain-no-gain.

  7. Nyla Carroll

    I totally agree – I have just relocated and my new long run course takes me along a route that is also being used for some sort of weekly race and someone goes out in the wee small hours and chalks all sorts of ‘slogans’ on the footpath – they just make me want to scream! Especially when I have been grinding it out for several hours in strong wind…I guess I have always been internally driven and this sort of thing has always driven me nuts – and especially in race situations! Kia Kaha from Down Under…

  8. Azriel

    Discomfort – I get what you’re saying. But for me it’s still pain. It’s just that there’s more than one type of pain.
    I’m almost 50 now and I’ve learned to endure the right kind of pain. It hurts and I go on. I can endure quite a lot of it now.
    But when the wrong pain comes (my piriformis has stopped me from running for a week already) – I stop.
    You could raise an eyebrow and ask “maybe that pain you call good caused that pain you call bad, and if only you listened to your body, you’d have avoided that injury?”.
    I have asked that myself.
    The answer is no. As the current injury is more relating to a feeling I’d call discomfort, rather than pain which I felt during a run. It’s when I ran a few weeks later (gentle run) and suddenly there was a weak pain in my piriformis which felt the wrong kind that I knew I needed to stop.

    What am I saying? Not sure :-)
    Because while I tend to accept and agree with what you say, I struggle with the term “discomfort”

    1. Azriel

      Oh, and one more thing – slogans are very problematic.
      I grew up with “practice makes perfect”… which gave me lots of personal issues with perfectionism.
      I now use “practice makes better”. Because improvement is all I am after, whether from myself, my kids or colleagues.

  9. LWH

    I very much enjoyed this piece and agree with the general theme. But I wonder whether Plato’s guardians are a good model. Although Plato says guardians must have the love of wisdom in their nature, it is a nature described as follows: “When [it]…sees someone it doesn’t know, it gets angry before anything bad happens to it. But when it knows someone, it welcomes him, even if it has never received anything good from him” (376a). Indeed, Plato describes this as “a refined quality in its nature and one that is truly philosophical…. Because it judges anything it sees to be either a friend or an enemy, on no other basis than that it knows the one and doesn’t know the other” (376b). This conception of the guardian’s desired nature is troublingly similar to the brazenness about which the essay worries.

    The underlying worry was in fact raised by Aristotle, who astutely rebuked Plato’s conception of the guardian character: “But it is a mistake to describe the Guardians as cruel towards strangers; it is not right to be cruel towards anybody, and men of great-souled nature are not fierce except towards wrongdoers, and their anger is still fiercer against their companions if they think that these are wronging them….” (Politics, 1328a).

    So while I think Plato’s guardians make important contributions to modern thought, I wonder whether their characters should be emulated (by runners or anyone). In an event, again, I enjoyed the essay and think it makes some very important points.

  10. Sabrina

    @LWH thank you for this! I really appreciate your comment. Yes, I agree completely that we ought not emulate the guardians. I don’t see much that we ought to imitate in the Republic at all… I only meant to use these passages to show the imbalance concern raised by Plato and Aristotle of too much spiritedness in one’s education as damaging to one’s physical constitution and character—not to laud the specific balance of poetry and gymnastics used on the guardians as a useful model for us. I guess another helpful passage is the comments made toward Spartan educations as imbalanced. But thank you for saying this because apparently I did not do a good job making this clear.

    1. LWH

      Cool – I agree completely and appreciate your clarifying the point. (As you know, it’s often the philosophers who need – and this is both ironic and maddening – the most clarification.)

      Looking forward to your next essay!

  11. David Burk

    I love these ideas. A brilliant piece of writing. I’m 64 and training for a competition with one component being to do as many 20 kg kettlebell snatches as possible in 5 minutes. The dumb type of toughness could get me killed; the wise kind can keep me young. It’s way more about patient consistency with incremental improvement over time than about simply trying to override signals from my body in any one moment. In the spirit of physical challenge as a component of a good, wise, balanced life, I offer a possible t-shirt slogan I believe is original with me. It’s on a homemade poster on my home gym wall: Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they worked on it EVERY day.

  12. Ian Sharman

    Great article and the fine line between pain and discomfort is a hard one to describe, so it really helps to be as objective as possible and not be biased by what you want to be the case (ie you don’t want to be injured so run through it by reclassifying it as being tough). Hopefully everyone gets better at this through practice, but the shorter the learning curve, the better.

  13. Logan

    I’ve always used the word “ache” instead of discomfort because “aches and pains” rolls off the tongue better. Aches/discomfort is your body saying running is hard, this sucks and I want to quit. Cue the sore calf, niggle in the foot, whatever. Then when you stop it goes away because, mission accomplished. It wasn’t serious. If you are in tune with your body enough to know it’s just an ache, sometimes it gives up and goes away.

    Pain is different. As I learned from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, pain is your body saying STOP, there’s something wrong under the hood, pull over now and stop doing the thing that is causing the pain.

    The trick is to tell the difference between aches and pains. For me, pain is anything that affects my form. If I have to compensate for the pain by altering my form, shifting my weight, favoring the other leg, etc., I need to stop.

    We need to strengthen our bodies to handle the miles without getting injured, and run with good form, so instead of “no pain no gain” it’s “no pain… thank you!” Again giving the credit for that one to Dr. Mark.

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