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If you’re a runner, you’re familiar with the endless stream of sports science breakthroughs that promise to make you marginally faster: specially formulated carbohydrate drinks, endurance-boosting beet extracts, shoes with curved carbon fibre plates embedded in the mid-soles and so on.

But have you considered the power of performance-enhancing virtues?

In a new book from Oxford University Press called The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners, philosopher and world-class ultramarathoner Sabrina Little argues that we should think of running – and, by extension, of exercise and sports more generally – as a laboratory for developing our character, and that cultivating traits such as perseverance, resilience, joy and gratitude can make you faster.

“These are the carbon-plated shoes of the soul,” she writes. “We cannot buy them, but we can develop them.”

At first glance, you may think she has it backward. After all, it’s a well-worn cliché that the discipline of running and other sports teaches us worthwhile lessons about persistence, patience and teamwork. That’s a big part of the reason that we sign our kids up for youth programs.

There’s some truth to this conventional wisdom, but it’s not the full story. After all, competitive sports can also foster less desirable traits, including selfishness, greed and envy. To gain the right character-building benefits, you need to think carefully and deliberately about which virtues you’re trying to foster and which vices you’re trying to avoid. The payoff, in Little’s view, is twofold: You’ll become a better person and, perhaps surprisingly, a better runner.

Little is a Hoka-sponsored ultramarathoner who has won numerous U.S. national titles and at one point held the American record for the 24-hour run with a distance of 244.7 kilometres. She’s also a philosophy professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia with a particular interest in virtue ethics, a field of inquiry that traces its origins back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

It was probably inevitable that her two passions would overlap: Philosophers ponder big questions, and ultrarunners have plenty of time to ponder while they run. In fact, it was a broken bone in her foot, a few weeks prior to the 2016 world trail-running championships, that got her thinking about the ways in which a trait such as resilience could be performance-enhancing – but wasn’t an inevitable consequence of running.

The rehab exercises prescribed by her physiotherapist seemed so trivial and pointless that it would have been easy to slack off. The fact that she was a committed runner didn’t automatically translate into the ability to stick with the program; she had to work at it. “I learned that small exercises make a big difference,” she writes, “and that bouncing back is a considered choice.”

The performance-boosting powers of perseverance and resilience are relatively straightforward. For other traits such as joy and gratitude, it can be less obvious, but Little argues that they too can be beneficial. An athlete who is thankful for the friends and competitors around her, for example, will have more motivation to push through difficult conditions.

On the other hand, certain vices can also help your running, at least in the short term. Being too stubborn to quit when you’re tired or hurt will get you to more finish lines, for example – but at what cost? One concern is injuries and burnout; a bigger one is that you’re reinforcing undesirable traits.

Such a runner might be superficially successful, Little writes. “But if her pacing is imprudent, her desires intemperate, her inclinations uncourageous, or her motivations awry, she is practising disagreeable qualities that she will very likely carry into the rest of her life.”

The distinctions between virtue and vice can be hazy, Little acknowledges. Too little perseverance and you’re a quitter; too much and you’re on the road to injury. Finding the right balance takes some trial and error, some introspection and maybe some debate. It’s these sorts of conversations that Little is hoping to spur, moving sports ethics beyond the usual negative discussions of doping and cheating and focusing instead on how we should aspire to live and how sports can help us get there.

As for the idea of performance-enhancing virtues, she may be onto something. After all, the best way to get a runner’s attention, whether about their shoe choice or their moral and ethical development, is to tell them it will improve their marathon time.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Threads @sweat_science.

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