What Confucius said applies to runners

Confucius had a lot to say in his day about life, relationships, morality and sincerity -- and many of those ideas can be applied to running. Photo illustration Tim Catalano

Have you ever wondered what the world record for the marathon was between 551 and 479 BC? Neither have we. Until we started writing this blog, we never even considered if there was competitive running so long ago. But there was at least one legendary runner during this time-period. In 490 BC a messenger named Pheidippides had just fought for Greece in the Battle of Marathon. He was sent to Athens with the news that Greece had defeated the Persians. According to the legend he ran the whole way from Marathon to Athens without stopping. He burst into the assembly hall, yelled out, “We have won!” collapsed, and died.

Depending on the route Pheidippides took to reach Athens he ran somewhere around 26 miles, making the distance famous. But why did he die? Did he literally run himself to death? Could Pheidippides have benefitted from a subscription to Runner’s World magazine or a few training tips from coach Lydiard? Probably. But since they were still 2,500 years away, he needed a different coach. A contemporary.

We like to think that in a perfect world the Chinese philosopher Confucius would have made a tremendous running coach. His teachings could have revolutionized the sport and given messenger/runners like Pheidippides some useful insights.

At least 83 generations of runners have come and gone since Confucius walked the planet. Until now (like Pheidippides) they have had to go without gaining the wisdom and sage training advice from the master.

We have identified seven quotes commonly attributed to Confucius that suggest he would have made an excellent running coach. Hopefully by the time you reach the end of the list, you will have gained some of his running insight.

Confucius says:

1. “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential... these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”

Confucius would have understood that runners are constantly trying to find their maximum potential. He also would have known that the will to win personal battles against the clock and the desire to attain personal goals is what fuels runners and they chase excellence.

2. “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Is there anything worse than seeing “DNF” (Did Not Finish) next to your name? If you ran for Confucius you would know that even on your bad days there is a lot to be gained from finishing.

3. “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Those who like to criticize running fail to see the beauty and simplicity in it. They cannot remember what it was like when they were young. When just running from one end of the living room to the other brought squeals of delight. Of course there is beauty in running. Confucius would have seen it right away.

4. “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

The deeper we probe into this quote the more profoundly it speaks directly to the runner’s soul. If you are a runner wishing to improve, you must reflect on races and workouts to examine your performance and how your body responded. You should also seek to imitate what has worked for other runners. Everything from nutrition to training schedules can be imitated to bring greater success. Finally you have to experience the good and the bad. We have all had bad runs, painful workouts, and disappointing races. As Confucius said, each of these things brings wisdom. Running with wisdom is a wonderful thing.

5. “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”

Long before marathoner Juma Ikangaa uttered the famous quote, “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare,” Confucius was preaching the same principal. He understood that success and failure are directly related to how much, and how well, you train. Runners in the Confucius program would be well prepared.

6. “All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.”

Running is hard but brings with it many good benefits. Lower blood pressure and body weight, better stamina and muscle strength, a healthy heart, and a positive outlook on life are just a few good things running can help you achieve. Sitting on the couch is easy so it is easy to get higher blood pressure and body weight. It is far easier to get our of shape than into shape. Confucius knew that the good things are worth working for.

7. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Running and living with passion makes everything better. No matter the level of competition, or specific races we choose to run, we should do so with our full hearts. Recognize each run as a gift and give it the attention and passion it deserves. Wherever you run, run with all your heart.

Would Confucius have made a good coach? We think so. Pheidippides made his historic run from Marathon to Athens a full eleven years before Confucius died at the ripe old age of 71. Perhaps Pheidippides could have lived a much longer life (and survived his legendary run) if Confucius had guided his training.

**Note: There are many funny “Confucius jokes” out there that do not have anything to do with the actual man or his teachings. Two of our favorite running ones are:

“Man who runs behind car gets exhausted.”

“Woman who runs in front of bus is sure to get tired.”


Tim Catalano and Adam Goucher are the authors of "Running the Edge." They can also be found at their website and would appreciate some new followers at facebook.com/runtheedge.