The Case for Pragmatism in Endurance Training

Among the first books I read after graduating from college (and thereby gaining the freedom to create my own syllabus) was Richard Rorty’s Truth and Progress. It served as my introduction to pragmatic philosophy, and I liked it. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that—very broadly—understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it.” To the pragmatist, truth is not an abstraction. When a belief solves a problem or is otherwise useful, it is true. There is, from the pragmatic perspective, no other viable standard by which to judge the veracity of an idea.

When I discovered pragmatism at age 22, I couldn’t have imagined how profoundly this way of thinking would influence my future work as an endurance coach, but it has—and for the better, I believe. There is a ruthlessness about pragmatism that I find comforting. Every move I make, or even consider making, as a coach is judged by the sole criterion of how well it works (within the parameters of legality and ethics). I don’t care what it is, where it came from, or how disruptive it might be to my existing beliefs—if it works better than any practical alternative, I apply it.

But doesn’t every coach do this? Hell, no! A lot of coaches spend zero time reflecting on their criteria for selecting methods to apply. If you ask a randomly selected coach to explain the standards they use to determine which methods to employ and which to disregard, there’s a good chance they will struggle to answer, because they’re never asked themselves this simple question. And when you lack a clear, conscious understanding of your selection criterion, all kinds of other standards besides practical utility sneak in.

One example is the credit criterion. Many coaches—often without conscious awareness—want to take all of the credit for any success their athletes achieve. This makes them territorial, unreceptive to ideas and expertise that come from outside themselves. Suppose a runner who has a history of hitting the wall in marathons mentions to her coach that she has a friend who overcame the same problem through the use of back-to-back long runs, and asks him (her coach) if he thinks the same method might also help her. The territorial type of coach who needs all of the credit is likely to reflexively dismiss this idea, not on its merits but simply because it wasn’t his idea.

Another common mistake of this general sort that some coaches make is refusing to change their mind in response to evidence that they were wrong about something. When Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he was referring to this form of prideful stubbornness, which can be quite damaging when exercised by people in positions of authority. As a person in a position of authority myself, I understand the temptation to keep giving athletes the same bad advice even after it has been revealed to me that a particular piece of advice I’ve been giving, thinking it good, is in fact bad. It’s embarrassing to admit you were wrong. Still, though, I’d rather live with some embarrassment and give athletes good advice going forward than continue giving them bad advice for the sake of sparing myself a little embarrassment.

The most embarrassingly bad advice I’ve ever given to athletes is Chapter 5 of Brain Training for Runners, where I essentially argue that there is only one correct way to run and I provide detailed guidance on how to run that way. I don’t know what drug I was on when I wrote that chapter, but the spell broke soon afterward and I awoke to the truth that each runner has their own optimal stride and that the best way to achieve it is to simply run without thinking about your form. I wish I could track down and burn every copy of Brain Training for Runners, but that’s impractical, so I’m doing the next best thing, which is admitting my error.

I realize that most of the folks reading this article are not coaches, but single-minded pragmatism is every bit as useful for the self-coached athlete as it is for coaches. The best way to get started with it is by considering why you do what you do as an athlete. For example, do you do CrossFit workouts because elite endurance athletes strength train that way (they don’t) or because it’s there? Do you put more time and energy into your strongest triathlon discipline than your weakest one because that’s the most effective way to elevate your overall triathlon performance (it’s not) or because you least enjoy training in your weakest discipline?

I’m not suggesting that every recreational endurance athlete should feel 100 percent obligated to always do what works best. If you want to race so often that you never race at your best because you enjoy racing frequently, go for it. All I’m saying is that you should make all of your training decisions with completely open eyes and that, to the extent that you do care about performance, pragmatism should be your sole selection criterion in your athletic decision making. Give it a try. I’m confident you will find that, at the very least, coaching yourself the Richard Rorty way brings a comforting level of clarity to the process of choosing what to do and what not to do as an athlete.