Coach Aristotle: Great Runs Start With Character

What’s your running style?

Logical? Passionate? Principled?

Brian Clark is a well-known communications expert. Brian loves to help people communicate clearly — in person, in writing, on the Web.

In a recent article, Brian talked about the three most important dimensions of persuasion. Surprise, they’re the same ones Aristotle talked about, 2000 years ago.

Aristotle said there are three ways to make your point:

  • Logos: appeal to the listener’s logic and reason.
  • Pathos: appeal to the desires, fears, passions, and other emotions of your audience.
  • Ethos: highlight the authority, honesty, and credibility of the person who’s talking.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle believed ethos was best. Brian Clark says, “When it comes to persuasion, people respond to a person’s perceived character way more than logic.”

Runners get in trouble when they let emotions rule their training. It’s a particular problem for younger runners — we’ve all seen 10-years-olds start a race full-tilt and fade in the first lap. But we older folks aren’t immune. Reason tends to follow whatever emotion we’re feeling. When we want to do something stupid, logic chimes in with all the ways it’s the best thing to do.

Pure reason (logos) can help us neutralize our runaway emotions. “If I go out too fast, I’ll die by 15 miles.” But reason isn’t always trustworthy. Our cultural pro-logic programming notwithstanding, following reason too rigidly can lead us astray.

Mark Twain said, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” And that’s the problem — reason works fine when we give it plenty of data. But for runners, most of the data is often hidden. Why does your knee hurt? Why did you run a personal worst? Logic can help us find the reasons, but only if have enough information.

Runners need all three: logos, pathos, ethos — reason, feeling, and character.

It’s character that ultimately creates good training. Character means submitting personal emotions and rationalizations to what’s true. And that takes discipline.

It’s not easy to “run with character.” It takes humility and self-control, often when we’d as soon pull out the stops and run free.

Running’s most enjoyable moments occur when we tighten the reins. A recent run showed me the rewards of running with character.

The schedule called for a 30-minute warmup and 30 minutes at “sub-tempo” pace.

(Sub-tempo is the highest aerobic pace. For most runners, it’s around 85% of max heart rate. These runs gradually raise the anaerobic threshold, enabling us to run faster aerobically, without breathing hard.)

Sub-tempo runs are the core of Chris Salinsky’s training. The US 10,000-m record holder says, “It’s our training philosophy, our mission, to make sure we are aerobic for as long as possible. That’s why Bekele [world 10,000-meter record holder Kenenisa Bekele; 26:17.53] can kick as fast as he can — his aerobic system is so developed. That’s the reason we run those miles.” (See an recent Running Times interviewwith Solinsky.) Solinsky says that in his training he’s continually exploring the line between aerobic and anaerobic pace.

I ran at the Palo Alto Baylands, a lovely bird sanctuary on San Francisco Bay. Forester’s Terns were darting over the waterways, where Canada Geese paddled in stately lines, mom and pop bracketing rows of goslings. American Avocets soared across the levees, deserving their reputation as America’s most elegant bird.

I warmed up and enjoyed the scenery, then mashed the pedal down to start the sub-tempo portion of the run. And my body responded: “Oops, sorry. Not today…” Perhaps it was the lingering fatigue from a 2½-hour run in 90-degree heat.

There’s a saying of birdwatchers: “When the bird and the book disagree — believe the bird.” It’s excellent advice for runners. “When the schedule and the body disagree — believe the body.

I thought of Arthur Lydiard — how he felt the best approach to improve any physical system is “from below.” After 10 minutes of painful running, I intuited that pushing up from below might allow me to salvage the run. But I realized it would take character to slow down.

With nothing to lose, I slowed and immediately felt better. There was a sense of coming back within myself. This was honest running — it was what my body could do, with benefit.

Good feelings spread in my heart, and I realized, not for the first time, that doing the right thing always pays off.

The Baylands are a popular venue for runners. A woman of ample proportions passed me going the other way. I felt a oneness in spirit with her, because I knew we were on the same quest. We were exploring new dimensions of fitness and joy together.

I enjoyed the expanded feelings and practiced extending them to other runners. My pace soon picked up without effort.

My original mistake? I was locked into logos. I carried out the day’s schedule rigidly, and sped up at the pre-determined time. I was also possessed by pathos — emotionally invested in running hard.

I wasn’t running with ethos. I was not running for principles higher than my immature desires. I tried to bend the world to my desires. And that’s not something the world is likely to do.

Researchers at Heartmath Institute have discovered that the heart works much more efficiently in the presence of positive, harmonious feelings than when we’re feeling negative or just neutral. Expansive feelings of love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness synchronize the heart’s rhythms, enabling the body to run faster with less perceived effort.

Backing off from the too-fast pace freed my heart’s feelings from the tangle of pain and strain. My body, allowed breathing room, found its natural rhythm, and the happy physical feelings spread to my heart. With my innards and outards synchronized, notching up the pace was easy.

When we run with character, honesty, and dispassionate self-control, the body quietly approves. And it tells us, with good feelings.
Good training and good feelings go together. Running with character isn’t easy, but it does pay off.


Note: Runners interested in tinkering with ethos may find useful tips an article I posted some time ago, “The Runner’s Brain.” It seems good judgment and mature attitudes are localized in a specific part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which we can deliberately access by sending energy to that area.

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One Response to Coach Aristotle: Great Runs Start With Character

  1. Wrong October 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    True discipline is ignoring the needs of the body, because needs are always subordinate to demands. Submitting, conforming.

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