Trading Cleats for Sneakers: A Primer on Freedom

Sabrina Little applies the philosophy of freedom to running.

By on June 19, 2019 | 6 comments

My freshman year of high school, I was standing on a soccer field, awaiting drill instructions from our coach. From high above the field, members of the cross-country team started running toward us, descending like Harold’s army in the Battle of Hastings. They circled the field, then headed past us around the perimeter of our campus and into the woods. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. Where are they going? I thought. I should be with them.

I started playing soccer at age four—first in the town league, and then on a traveling team from age eight onward. I lived and breathed soccer, but my successes in soccer were always due to my running. I was kind of annoying about it. I would arrive early to practice and run laps, then ping-pong my body up and down the field all practice. My older sister, who was on my team, found me insufferable, but I couldn’t squelch my running enthusiasm. Before my freshman year of high school, I met with both the soccer and cross-country coaches to pick up summer training plans. I did both plans, delaying my decision until the week before school, and ultimately, I chose soccer. But, in all the years that followed, I chose running.

Running and Freedom

What drew me to running was the freedom of it. The soccer kids stayed in a rectangle, and the cross-country kids ran free. We ran off campus on the Appalachian Trail and into the apple orchard behind our school. We ran the mountain roads of our town and explored local neighborhoods. In soccer, I had the momentum of my whole life and a decade of skill development inclining me to stay, but in running I had the movement I was actually built for and an entire town to explore beyond the rectangle.

When I ask friends why they started running, they almost always say something like this: They run because of the freedom it affords them. And, as I’ve said, I agree. But what I didn’t realize when I signed on for cross country was that, while I freely chose my sport, my sport would also be the means by which my freedoms would develop.

Conceptual Backdrop

In reading ancient or medieval philosophy, you would be hard pressed to find a major thinker who does not directly treat human freedom. There are a number of rich accounts, and I won’t do justice to them here. But there is a point of emphasis in much of their writing that I want to point out, which running helps illustrate. This is that there are two kinds of impediments to human freedom, the latter of which we often neglect to redress:

  • external constraints, and
  • internal constraints.

In the first case, freedom involves the ability to act or to choose uncoerced or without certain external impediments. For example, in selecting my breakfast, if someone demands I have cereal, this will constrain my own choosing. My breakfast won’t be ‘up to me.’ If instead, of my own unmanipulated volition, I choose cereal over other options, this captures a type of free, unimpeded choice. (1) Civil liberties—like religious freedom and the right to privacy—are examples of freedom from external constraints.

Examples relevant to runners include limited leisure time, horrendous weather, or injuries. I once mistakenly packed two right sneakers for an afternoon run. This is an example of an external constraint on my ability to meet my mileage goal that day. Just kidding, I ran in them anyway.

In the second case, freedom involves self-mastery, or the ability to exercise my will without internal impediments. If I am free in this sense, I won’t get in my own way. (2) I can choose well, without succumbing to impulses or roving appetites, wherever they lead me. While freedom of the first type is secured by eliminating obstacles, freedom of the second type is formed through internal work, like education or training, growing in virtue, and affixing ourselves to productive commitments.

Examples of internal constraints for runners might include laziness, cowardice, imprudence, mollities (Aquinas’s word for softness—which is the opposite of perseverance), and pusillanimity. These are agential limitations on our ability to reach our running goals. They are defects of character.

Today, our cultural conversation around free will is somewhat lacking. When we speak of freedom, we usually mean freedom of the first type—freedom from external impediments. This type of freedom is certainly important, but it offers an incomplete description of what it means to be a free person. This is because oftentimes the greatest impediment to our freedom is not a lack of choices but a failure to adequately self-govern. Thankfully, athletics can provide the opportunity to practice freedom of this second type.

Exercising Free Will (Get it? Exercising.)

On Mondays in high school, we used to run 400-meter repeats after school. We did a lot of repetitions with minimal recovery, and the workout hurt. As an underclassman, I would spend every Monday morning fretting about this workout, fearing the difficulty ahead and not wanting to be so uncomfortable. Then, when I arrived at the track, I would pace things poorly—running too fast for the first set of 400s, rendering myself incapable of hitting the paces in the second half of the workout.

In short, I didn’t self-govern well. I lacked practical wisdom about pacing, and I wasn’t very courageous. Both of these deficits impeded my performance. Over time, I got better at managing both my paces and nerves. I realized that if I could hit the prescribed paces (forcing myself to run easier at the beginning when I felt good), then I would be able to accomplish the entire workout as written. I also realized that there is a difference between feeling bad and feeling bad for myself, and I am the only one who gets to decide how I respond to a hard workout.

Running is instructive because it asks a lot of us. And because of this, we have to turn inward and take an account of certain defects of our character—like lack of courage or prudence, as well as weakness of will—that might be preventing us from performing well. In sports, we learn to show up when we don’t feel like it and do our best anyway. This is part of our education in freedom, and it is a crucial part. Because maybe no one is making you do anything, but can you make yourself do something? If not, you are not a free person. In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger describes this type of discipline or self-governance as necessary. He warns that, otherwise, we will not be able to “stand firm” and will be “enslaved” by our own desires and pleasures. (3)

And if you don’t believe me (or Plato), take it from Eliud Kipchoge, the current world-record holder in the marathon. He was recently quoted as saying this: “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.” (4)

Final Thoughts

After my freshman year of high school, I exited the rectangle because the freedom of running appealed to me. What I didn’t realize was that running (and, actually, soccer before that) would be a tremendous tool in shaping my freedoms by helping me to self-govern better. Being a free person means more than having choices. It means being able to choose well, and this ability needs practice.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What external and internal constraints do you find limit your running freedom? And how about the constraints which limit your freedom in other aspects of life?
  • What kinds of freedom does running give you? In other words, as Sabrina Little describes, what work have you done on yourself and the environment around you to make you a free person in sport?
  • Please share your thoughts about Eliud Kipchoge’s words, “Only the disciplined ones in life are free.”


  1. Politics 1310a32a
  2. Laws 635b-d
  3. Laws 635c
  4. Scott Cacciola. “Eliud Kipchoge is the Greatest Marathoner, Ever.” New York Times. 14 September 2018. Retrieved 11 June 2019.

The author playing soccer at age five. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Little.

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.