Toughness Reconsidered

An essay about appropriately balancing toughness and softness in our running.

By on February 17, 2021 | Comments

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

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.