Stoicism for Trail Runners

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

Before I start, let me quickly clear up some misconceptions about what Stoicism is. Because of the use of the word stoic in the English language, there is a connotation that stoicism is about enduring hardship by hiding or ignoring one’s own feelings. Rather, stoicism simply urges us to be mindful of our emotions and be aware that we are reacting to them.

What is Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BCE.

I discovered the philosophy of Stoicism a few years ago. It was a revelation for me as I discovered that it aligned with my personal philosophy. So essentially I had been a Stoic for most of my life without realising it. What I find so amazing is how relevant the Stoic teachings are today, even though they were written about 2000 years ago.

Stoicism was developed during the Roman empire by three prominent Romans — Seneca, Epictitus and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca was Emperor Nero’s tutor. Epictitus was a former slave. And Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, often called the philosopher king. They wrote about their views on life, suffering and practices to forge a strong spirit that could survive the challenges of their times.

According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

At the centre of Stoicism are two beliefs. The first one focuses on the fact that much of our suffering and stress is caused by thinking that we have control over things, where in reality we don’t. While we do have control over a few things, most things in our lives are outside of our control.

The second belief highlights that it’s not these events outside our control that make us unhappy, but rather how we interpret them and the meaning that we impose on them. Stoics don’t believe that things are inherently good or bad — only that our thoughts and reactions to them makes them so.

The truth is that we control very little of what happens in our lives. All we can control is how we think, judge, and react to things that happen. The irony is that although we have little control over most occurrences in our lives, through our thinking and reactions, or lack of, we actually have control in how we choose to live and pursue happiness in life.

Benefits for Runners

So, what does Stoicism have to do with running? Well, they have quite a bit in common. Some things we can learn from Stoicism that are beneficial to our running practise. There are also things we can take from running and apply them in our practise of Stoicism.

“90% of ultra running is mental, and the rest is in your head.”

Ray Zahab

Runners must contend with it’s injuries, tough conditions or mental fatigue and once you start getting into longer distances you are bound to face personal challenges of many types. The Stoic’s philosophy deals specifically with preparing yourself for hardship, so you can handle it well and see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

The challenges that running, racing and life may throw your way are outside your control. How you choose to respond to and overcome them is under your control and can make the difference between a life of tranquillity and centred growth or one of disappointment.

Reference Material

Books

Podcasts

My favourite podcast is Stoic Meditations by Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His podcast is a quick daily discussion of a selected stoic writing. It’s a beautifully execute podcast, and highly recommended.

The Tim Ferriss Podcast is how I was properly introduced to Stoicism. Although I had a vague understanding of it, Tim Ferris mentioned it so often on his podcast that I decided I would need to find out more, and I’m glad I did.

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