The Surprising Appeal of Endurance Sports

I recently read an article by Brad Stulberg, author of the column Science of Performance in Outside Magazine and of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success in which he discusses the popularity of endurance sports among knowledge workers. Running USA surveys conducted in 2015 and 2017 found that about 85 percent of runners work in white-collar, service, or educational settings. What is it about running and other endurance sports that attracts them?

Endurance sports are those activity that require you to keep physically moving over a relatively long period of time. Classic examples include running, swimming and cycling among summer sports, and cross-country skiing or speed skating among winter sports.  Knowledge workers, on the other hand, are those who (simply put) think for a living. Examples include programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and business owners. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that the very people who are so attracted to endurance sports are the same people who regularly use their minds more than their bodies.  But, is it really counter-intuitive?

The hypothesis is that endurance sports offer something that most modern-day knowledge economy professions do not: the chance to pursue a clear and measurable goal with a direct line back to the work people have put in. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” most knowledge economy jobs suffer from “a lack of objective standards.” What does it mean to succeed in the knowledge economy?

If you are a business owner, for example, how do you measure your success?  Is success measured by how much money you make, how many people you serve, how happy your clients are, how happy you are, something else, a combination of things?   The answer, of course, is…it depends.  And even if you do know the answer to that question, it is still difficult to measure and is very subjective. Endurance sports, on the other hand, are quite straight forward. If you set out to walk one mile, you know at the end if you succeeded or not. If you set out to climb a hill or a mountain, you know whether or not you got to the top. And for people who deal with ambiguity day in and day out, that can be very satisfying.

If you follow me on social media, you know I am currently participating in the virtual Get to Sesame Street Challenge. The goal is to walk/run/hike/cycle/rollerblade/skip/any-other-similar-activity-you-enjoy for 500 miles. Each 50-100 miles, you reach a new milestone and earn a new pin depicting a different Sesame Street character. Objectively, this sounds pretty pointless for us grown-ups, and tracking the miles could be considered a pain in the … well, you know. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, I never would have considered participating in this type of event. However, after more than a year of not being able to participate in an in-person race, I reconsidered. In a world where everything is unpredictable, it can be really soothing to get out and walk and know that I have a goal to work towards. I can completely control whether or not I reach that goal. And I can measure my objective progress each and every day. The fact that having a goal like this encourages me to walk rather than drive to places like the supermarket is pretty good for my health and wellness too, which is icing on the cake.  As of today, I only have 24.5 miles left until I get to Grover, the 500-mile mark. And I’m really excited about it! What objective goal did you set for yourself (and achieve!) today?

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