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How Swimming, Biking, and Running Cultivate Self-Reliance

BY Brad Stulberg

Endurance sports do more than just improve your physical health. Training and racing also brings a sense of satisfaction after a job well done. Brad Stulberg explains how endurance sports impact your sense of accomplishment and happiness.

It’s widely known that swimming, biking, and running are great for both our biological and psychological health. Yet, an often overlooked benefit of participating in endurance sports is that they fill a void in our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Endurance sports foster a unique kind of quality. Let me explain:

Most of us swim, bike, or run in pursuit of achieving something that is “objectively good,” a clear and measurable goal, like a sub-three-hour marathon for example. In doing so, we rely primarily on our body. This provides us with a sense of individual agency and self-worth that is crucial to our health. In today’s world, opportunities to strive toward this type of objective good are somewhat rare.

Clearly Defined Success

Many of us spend our days working in an office, where, in the words of philosopher Matthew Crawford, “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” there is a “lack objective standards.” This is not a negative critique of the modern-day workplace, but rather, an inherent consequence of a complex and interconnected economy that produces non-material goods and services. This is in stark contrast with the sort of objective standard that can be measured by running a sub-three-hour marathon, where the definition of success is clear.

Ask someone what it means to do a good job on an intricate project at the office and it could take them an hour to explain and may require charts and graphs. Ask that same person what it means to do a good job in their next race and I bet they can tell you in less than a minute with no PowerPoint required.

It’s possible that most people are fulfilled by spending their days in pursuit of the subjective good typical of the knowledge economy job. But perhaps endurance athletes are not. Why might this be the case? To quote Crawford again, “The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy. It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

Crawford, who is a mechanic, ushers in this “manual competence” and the contentment it breeds by fixing motorcycles. Endurance athletes find it by striving for new personal records (PRs), which, by definition, are tangible results that can be traced back to the self.  

Physical and Mental Harmony

Training for PRs often gives birth to a special kind of quality. For example, when a runner sets out to accomplish a goal, their body is their predominant tool and their mind, then, must be focused on using it. The result is a Zen-like harmony between the cognitive mind and physical body, a rhythm that is constantly evolving with every training experience.

In order for a runner to avoid injury, let alone improve, they must be attentive to the cues coming from their body. These signals determine how to approach the next stride, but they also influence what the next run might look like: Should they push to build on gains? Or should they pull-back, giving their muscles more time to recover?

Over a broader horizon, the summation of bodily cues and a runner’s reaction to them shapes their training program, and ultimately, the outcome it produces. This is why the best athletes approach each workout with deep focus and care. Training in this manner fosters a relationship between an athlete and their sport that embodies what I call “Quality”: something that occurs when actor and act are so seamlessly interwoven they are hard to separate that they nearly become one. (This definition of “Quality” was first introduced by Robert Pirsig in the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

Acute Awareness

There is hardly a form of engagement more intimate than that with one’s own body during a workout. As athletes, we are inherently involved in every step of our act, acutely aware of our muscle contractions, breathing, and the lactic acid that is boiling under our skin. Over time, we develop a closer relationship with our body; we improve our understanding of how it works– and with mindful attentiveness, we make it work better. Elements of this process are satisfying ends in themselves, like the enjoyment of a beautiful day outside or the stress release that accompanies a hard training session. But for those of us who race competitively, there is no denying the satisfaction we experience when all of our hard work manifests in a race well run, something measured by the most objective and honest standard of all: time.

Following a good race, we are extremely proud of what we’ve created. We relish in the knowledge that the manual labor involved in transforming our bodies was, in fact, ours. The deep satisfaction, confidence, and fulfillment this brings is something many endurance athletes appreciate and share. And it’s a huge reason why we keep coming back for more.

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About Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg researches and writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist with Outside Magazine, a regular contributor to Runner’s World, and his work has been featured in Forbes, NPR, and The Huffington Post. Brad is also working on a book exploring the principles and practices that underlie mastery across domains. Follow him on twitter, where he shares all of the latest evidence and his writing @Bstulberg.