February 01, 2024

Twenty years ago, at fifteen years old, I discovered cycling. A friend’s father had organized a bike-camping trip through the local mountains—already a formative experience—and right afterward, I happened across the Tour de France on TV. That year’s race was something special (Lance Armstrong’s fifth win, full of drama and intrigue, shimmering under a heat wave), and the pairing of it and the bike trip captured my imagination. Cycling became first a hobby, then something more: my first taste of athletic ability, an increasingly important piece of my emerging self-image. Under the generous wings of several adult mentors, I began joining the local group rides, then the Tuesday-night race rides, and very soon I was a cyclist. Ever since, endurance sports—first cycling, then running1—have been among the defining practices of my adult life.

Under the framework of stated and revealed preferences, how we behave says more about our beliefs and values than what we say out loud. In my case, the revealed preference (backed by a nearly uninterrupted track record over twenty years) seems to be for spending great periods of time exercising. I’ve often wondered about that preference, contemplating—often while exercising—whether it might perhaps be out of balance. Why not spend a little more time reading? Learning new skills? Spending time with loved ones? Yet deep down, I do think it’s in balance, with all that time and energy paid back in ways that are unexpectedly profound. My aim here is to bring those stated and revealed preferences into harmony—not by modifying any behavior, but by stating why I find exercise so rewarding.

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I just framed time spent exercising as zero-sum—it can’t be used for other priorities. While that’s true in a narrow sense, overall it’s not quite right. One of the greatest things cycling and running offer is time to think—and not just time to think, but to think in a mode that feels unique to endurance sports. It’s not meditation, where thoughts are something to observe with a scientist’s infinite detachment: on a run, I’ll often return to a thought over and over, engaging with it, actively seeing where it goes. It’s not the efficient, tactical thinking mode we favor at work: on a run, I’ll often find myself thinking through something without really planning to, contemplating a theme that just bubbles up. It’s not the same as just sitting still and thinking: some combination of the changing landscape and the body’s endocannabanoids2 makes the time uniquely expansive and thought-provoking. Running is time to reflect. Or, in a world of heavy informational and psychological intake, it’s time to digest. I’ve noticed that I feel most myself when I’m running a lot, and I think this is why: the mind’s digestive system running smoothly.

Another way running is not zero-sum is the way it plays with the density of time. On the one hand, it’s got that flow-state characteristic where you become absorbed and realize that hours have passed. On the other hand, nothing makes the clock slow down like, say, gutting out the last minute of a set of VO2 intervals. In either case, exercise yields outsized experience: an especially long or hard run can, in the space of just a few hours, convey a real sense of journey, contributing more to the overall experience of the day than any other window of an hour or two. (Travel has something of this same quality, with a weekend spent traveling perceived as more vivid than the whole routine month that preceded it.) You put time into it, yes, but it gives you some of that time back.

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There’s something comically boring about running. “What do you do for fun?” “Oh, you know, effort, but a different kind, mostly just for effort’s sake.” Or: “Here’s a way to use time and landscape as a toy: you pretty much just move through them in a challenging way.” The thing is that the shape of the effort is interesting. Looking back on a typical run, the defining characteristic isn’t the breathing or how the legs felt or even the route. It’s the effort: “3x mile reps hard” or “long, steady endurance.” Running isn’t about the act; it’s about the how of the act. It’s an adverb, not a noun. Squint at it from afar and running could be any other activity that shared the same effort profile.

That profile has a narrative arc. Like a short story, runs have an introduction, rising action, perhaps a struggle, resolution. (Or if you prefer: arousal, plateau, climax, resolution.) Runs are often tidy and self-contained (solid workouts, bread-and-butter weekday mornings), but sometimes they’re extravagant and Joycean—certain races or peak adventures, perhaps an epic day that was almost too much to handle. Far from mere toil, running has an interesting, satisfying, memorable shape. For us story-telling humans, that’s surely a big part of the appeal.

More than the narrative arc, though, I think it’s something about the clean inputs and outputs of effort and progress. To train is to spend time in a world you mostly control: one that’s mostly fair, where—setting aside problems like injury and overtraining, weeds in even this walled garden—you earn things through hard work. Where struggle has a purpose and is right-sized to your abilities. These are comforting stories, almost bedtime stories for grownups. Training is a way of carving out a little more territory where they hold true.

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For many of us, sports are all about big, novel challenges, like running a marathon, with training as a means to this end. I’m sort of the opposite: I race (when I race at all) as an excuse to train, because I like the lifestyle. But I appreciate big challenges, and try to sprinkle a few throughout each year.

The nature of challenge is interesting. First off, we should acknowledge that exercise—no matter how long or how intense—isn’t that hard. Truly hard things are more like loss, illness, addiction, a loved one’s pain. And yet: endurance goals really do push you from time to time, even if I think we’re much too loose with the word “suffering.” A run that’s so long you don’t know how you can finish it, a power test that incrementally ramps to the point of failure—these are legitimately hard things, maximal efforts.

One of the things I like is how maximal efforts scale up or down. A really long ultra, like a 100-mile run, is obviously a maximal effort: right at the limits of the achievable for almost everyone on the start line. And yet, even for the most experienced athlete, something as humble as a 5k is a maximal effort if you treat it that way. The challenge is different, but it’s still there, pressurized like a diamond into just a handful of minutes. It reminds me of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, where a finite space can be shown to contain infinity. Any finite event (5k or 100k) contains the same underlying challenge: reaching your limits. That’s the real finish line, and it doesn’t vary with the distance of the event.

No, it’s not real suffering—but it’s also different than not making a habit of such efforts. When I do find myself encountering real suffering, I tend to turn to physical effort as a way to process it. The two things aren’t the same, but they are connected in some way I’m still trying to put my finger on.

Maybe it has something to do with balance. As with suffering, the truly maximal efforts are elsewhere in life: caregiving, certain relationships, certain careers. Training is a way to balance these massive efforts with many smaller ones. Where life’s challenges are mostly psychological, mental, and moral, training is physical; where life’s challenges are open-ended, long-term, and high-stakes, training is self-contained and low-stakes; where life’s demands are thrust upon us, training is voluntary. I hesitate to say it prepares us for the biggest challenges in any real way, but I do think there’s a paradoxical effect where adding more effort to life can balance out the really big challenges and perhaps make them easier to bear. And on the positive side, these frequent small efforts yield not just challenge but satisfaction and accomplishment—again, in a way that diversifies life’s deeper but rarer accomplishments.

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There’s the relationships: with people, places, and self. You can either train solo or train with others, and both are great. I tend to mostly train solo. This whole essay is about the resulting relationship with self, but I’ll just mention here that a big part of it is the steady cadence of solitude. Just you, no phone or laptop or headphones, alone with your thoughts. The open-ended, expansive thinking mode is therapeutic, and I think all that solitary time can’t help but bring you closer to yourself.

Of course, it’s also a joy to train and compete with friends. Some of my most treasured memories center on shared outdoor adventures: epic days where we bit off more than we could chew, blissful days of shared appreciation, misadventure days that became downright unpleasant (but sure made for great stories after). There’s something deeply bonding about sharing such adventures. Then there’s the satisfying mixture of camaraderie and rivalry that comes from training and racing with friends: pushing each other, swapping tips, cheering for each other. Or the way that people go through high and low patches at different times throughout a long day, with each giving and receiving support in turn. Or the way that long runs or bike rides give you hours to do nothing but talk, privately, without distractions. Add it all up and I can think of no better way to spend time with friends than by sharing adventures in beautiful places.

Those beautiful places are a big part of the story. To train year-round (at least in the temperate PNW) is to spend a lot of time outdoors, visiting the same places over and over. To see them change with the seasons and years. Over time you lay a sort of claim to these landscapes. As a young cyclist, I would do hill repeats up a winding road in a gated community, an outsider among those lush estates. Yet—I felt then and still feel now—all those hours gasping and pushing made the climb not just mine, but uniquely mine. When I think of a deep sense of place, I think mostly of landscapes I’ve experienced thanks to exercise.

(It’s not just the places themselves, but the sense of incremental revelation. As you climb, broadleafs subtly giving way to conifers. The conditions changing with the elevation: perhaps into the clouds, perhaps above them. The way the light changes as you get close to the top: more and more horizon through the trees. And the way that whatever summit you reach—a vista, a bench, an anonymous clearing—feels imbued with a certain magic, disclosed to you alone.)

At the risk of pressing the point farther than I’m sure I believe, there’s something beautiful about the way physical adaptation reflects the characteristics of the places you train—embodies them in your very self. I miss those long training rides around Whatcom County, those wintery trail runs up the Chuckanuts, those meadering loops around the Willamette Valley with friends, those interval sessions around various tracks with various friends… but they’re all still there, not just in memory, but in heart, muscle, motor patterns, mitochondria. For embodied beings, is this not a profound form of connection to place?

Back to earth: endurance training keeps you close to the landscape’s elements and raw materials. The trails paint your legs with mud. You run through rain, cold, heat, sunburn. You’re poked and slapped about by branches, brushed by nettles, stung by bees. Perhaps (you shudder to think of it) you get traces of manure on your water bottle in the springtime, when the flat farmland roads flood and dry and your tires kick up bits of debris. Rarely but inevitably, you fall, and if you’re lucky all that happens is the pavement grates off sections of your skin. Such things keep you in touch with the texture of the real world.

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Then there’s the fact that endurance sports are full of obvious but profound lessons. These are the sorts of well-worn lessons that we mostly already know; they’re not novel information. But the endurance context makes them come to mind more readily, feel more right. It’s like living in a culture that emphasizes a particular set of customs: though they’re available to everyone, across all cultures, you’ll reach for them more naturally in a culture that puts them front and center.

There’s the way training underlines the difference between process and outcome, or (more broadly) between what you can control and what you cannot. You can control things like your training, diet, sleep, and goals. You can’t control things like the weather, your genes, your age, your competition, and many of the deeper demands and circumstances of life. Such factors can be hugely important in performance outcomes (like winning a race or hitting a time), which is why outcomes tend not to make good goals. Training teaches the old Stoic lesson of focusing on what you can control and setting aside what you cannot. This can be hard to accept (we ruminate on what we cannot control; we mistake one category for another), but I find that athletes tend to recognize the distinction readily and cheerfully.

More subtly, there’s the way that training invites you to consider the difference between first- and second-order phenomena: the first-order exercise itself and the second-order adaptations in response. It’s extremely tempting to confuse the two—to identify a heavy training week with becoming fit. But the training week is mere signal; it’s the rest week that makes you fit, as your body notices the signal and takes advantage of food and sleep to modify itself. To confuse the two is to confuse sowing seeds with harvesting crops. It’s a classic map/territory problem, forever tempting you to add training because it’s what’s visible and measurable. Most of the time, that works nicely, as long as the seeds are what’s limiting yield—but eventually the bottleneck will be something more like soil health (sleep, nutrition, fatigue), and then piling on exercise will backfire badly. Such map/territory problems are subtle and dangerous; if training helps you spot them, that’s a valuable lesson indeed.

In the same vein, there’s the way training teaches you to care more about consistency and less about heroic one-off efforts. Resting, backing off, pausing—these can feel contrary to forward motion, but training eventually teaches you (usually the hard way) that short-term pauses are in deep alignment with long-term progress. The point of the rest periods in an interval workout is that they let you spend more time at high intensity; the point of easy days is that they let you run harder tomorrow; the point of not completely exhausting yourself today is that you can do even more next week. Understood properly, exercise suffuses even negative space (rest, sleep, food) with progress, which is a useful intuition to bring to the rest of life. It teaches you to prize sustainability before everything else—even (especially) in the domains you care about most, where you might be tempted to overreach.

There’s the lesson of seeing unpleasant sensation as neutral signal, not something inherently negative. In running, this might look like grimacing through a hard interval session, disliking it on some level, and on a deeper level feeling satisfaction that it’s going just right because it feels the way it does. Outside sport, this might look like feeling some sort of stress or anxiety and neutrally treating it as a compass pointing to an important problem to solve, not a negative stimulus to run away from.

There’s the way you sometimes have to make it through just the mile you’re in, just the hill you’re climbing, just this current tough moment, without dwelling on just how much is left. Bike racing really drills this in, with surges that are uniquely hard and unpredictable—but if you can just hang on for a few more seconds, the effort relents and you recover. While many of these lessons have to do with restraint and caution, this one is about acknowledging when a situation requires unsustainable effort and simply doing it, knowing that circumstances will eventually change.

There’s the way that effective training requires you to train like the athlete you are today—not the athlete you dream of becoming someday, not the competition, not your idol on TV. Training is deeply personal: addressing your weaknesses, amplifying your strengths, building specific skills for the event you’re targeting. This means acknowledging setbacks like injury or illness, rather than wishing them away. To train like someone else or ignore reality is, at best, nonoptimal; at worst it’s actively harmful. Effective training starts with self-awareness, which seems deeply healthy, psychologically.

And we’re not just healthy about it individually: in group settings like running clubs, we’re uniquely comfortable navigating difference. In so many cultural contexts, comparison becomes taboo or toxic: When one neighbor learns that another makes X times more money, do they feel alike? When a child learns that a peer is considered “gifted,” do they feel alike? They do not, but if I run a 6:00 mile and you run a 4:30 or 14:30 mile, we can belong to the same running club and feel like we’re fundamentally peers, more alike than not, because of our shared interest. Of course, some of us are faster than others, but even the fastest are slower than others still; in the end we’re all just trying to improve. Training makes striving a bonding mechanism, not a wedge.

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These reasons and more keep me active year after year. There’s much more to say about exercise (for instance, as a tool for health), but these are the reasons I find it so interesting.

In Borges’s “The Zahir,” an everyday coin takes on the mystical property of consuming more and more attention until it’s all the narrator can think of. “In order to lose themselves in God, the Sufis repeat their own name or the ninety-nine names of God until they become meaningless,” notes the narrator, obsessed. “I long to travel that path. Perhaps I will succeed in wearing away the Zahir by thinking and re-thinking about it. Perhaps behind the coin is God.”

For me, exercise has a little of the Zahir in it: commonplace, plain, yet an object of infinite attention. Twenty years in and I don’t seem to have exhausted what makes it interesting. I hope I’ll feel the same way many decades from now. In the meantime, you’ll find me out there most mornings, putting in the miles, wearing away the coin.

  1. There’s a whole separate post to be written about the contrast between these two, so alike and so different. Cycling is running in a funhouse mirror. The one contested on tidy, mathematically perfect tracks; the other on mountain passes and muddy cobblestones. The one characterized by minimalist clothing, with many runners training shirtless in the heat; the other by neon hues and generally extragavant outfits. The one with less gear than any other sport (just shoes and perhaps a watch); the other with unbelievable high-tech machinery and the obsessive researching and tinkering that goes along with it. The one not without tactics, but ultimately about who’s strongest; the other about nothing more than tactics, thanks to drafting and its game-theoretic implications. The one with its vast human history and prehistoric roots; the other an unabashed product of modernity and technology. I love them both, just for different reasons: running for its accessibility, simplicity, and austerity; cycling for its speed, range, and excess.

  2. “Runner’s high” is definitely a thing. A friend once proposed the thought experiment of a pill that replicates only the mental sensations of running, with none of the more obvious physical sensations. Would you notice its effects? I’m certain you would; it would feel like some mixture of calm, well-being, and that special reflective frame of mind.