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“Play Is The Process. Fitness is the Product.” Embrace Play to Revolutionize Your Running, Then Your Life

Posted by on Mar 27, 2012 | 10 Comments

The quote comes from my most quotable running advocate- George Sheehan.  A recent article by my friend Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, director of the Natural Running Center, used this quote from Sheehan to make a simple point- we’re missing the element of “play” in modern running.  I couldn’t agree more.

All too often, we focus exclusively on outcomes.  We care about finishing a distance, doing so in a specific time, or placing in a certain position.  If we DO focus on the process, we tend to obsess over pacing, heart rate, weekly mileage, or worrying about how our run will look when we post in on Facebook using Daily Mile.

We miss one basic idea that Sheehan obviously understood and Mark eloquently discussed in his article:

Running should be play


The idea of play is simple- we engage in an activity for the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity.  It seems like a great idea and it wouldn’t be difficult making a case to ‘play’ more often.  Yet we don’t.  Our society has an aversion to the idea of play.  The definition probably sums up the reason for this:

Activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.

Once we reach adulthood, we feel we need to be serious.  We become masochists, but not the kind that have fun with it (i.e.- no whips).  We have to toil away at tasks that are not enjoyable.  We have to compartmentalize our recreation to discrete periods of time for a few hours on the weekend and two weeks per year.  “Play” is relegated to the same schedule as the National Guard.

Maybe our problem is the association between children and play.  As we age, we slowly and methodically kill the intrinsic joy we get from activities.  Think about our school experience.  Before we go to kindergarten, we spend pretty much all of our waking existence playing.  When we enter elementary school, we have a few clearly defined ‘play’ periods throughout the day in the form of recess.  By the time we enter middle school, our ‘play’ time is all but eliminated.  Oh sure, we get a brief renaissance known as “freshman year of college”, but even that gives way to the seriousness of preparing for a career.

Back to running

I believe all the running we do should be of the ‘play’ variety.  What exactly does this mean?  I came across an excellent article in Psychology Today that gave five elements of ‘play’:

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed;
  • Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
  • Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
  • Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and
  • Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

In Mark’s article, he talks about the original idea of a Fartlek run- there’s no predetermined pace or goal… you just run.  Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow.  Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard.  Do what feels right at that very moment.  Do what is fun.

A Life of Play

This idea transcends running.  It can be applied to life in general.  After reading the Psychology Today article, I realized something that has been difficult to verbalize: Shelly and I have formatted our lives around the idea of play.  Once we abandoned the expectation that adults have to be serious, our enjoyment of life increased immensely.  All it took has a simple reframing of perceptions and expectations.

Is this refocusing on the idea of play the key to happiness?

Our modern society is obsessed with all kinds of shortcuts to happiness.  We buy houses, cars, and new clothes to gain social approval.  We read self-help books.  We take drugs, both legal and illegal.  We attach ourselves to others so they can care for us.  We change our appearance to appear more attractive.  We join movements and religions to get a sense of belonging.  We bury ourselves in our careers.

All of these ideas don’t really bring a sense of lasting happiness.  They’re fleeting moments that dull the pain of our day-to-day existence.  Their fleeting nature assures we’ll continually search for something new.

What is a lasting solution?

Embrace the idea of play as a foundation for everything you do.

I know, the practical, serious adult in you immediately starts formulating reasons why it’s not possible for grown adults to play all the time.  That’s to be expected.  We’re trained to see play as a childish activity.  To overcome this hangup, I recommend trying it in small doses.  Find some time during the day to play.  When you do, note how it makes you feel during the activity.  How about afterward?  If the playing involved an outcome, did you perform better when playing than if you had focused on the outcome?  I bet you did. At the very least, I bet the play period made you happy.

Making an association between play and happiness is the key to gaining the confidence to spreading the idea to all facets of your life.  Once you make a few baby steps, you can’t resist doing it more.  Trust me, it’s addictive.

On our travels, we’ve met a fair number of people that are at various stages of embracing this idea.  The correlation is crystal clear: the more play people introduce into their lives, the happier they are.  Clearly the idea of play can enhance your running.  It also has the ability to transform your life.  The happiest people are those that make ‘play’ a priority.

What are your thoughts?  How can you introduce more play into your running and life in general?


Need more evidence that backs up my point?  Check out this article from the Huffington Post.





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  1. Sheel
    March 28, 2012

    Play is awesome. Being a fun-loving kid, I play games in the hall where I just try to keep on the green squares till I get to my locker. I can go and PLAY with little kids who then enjoy my company. And I rarely spend too much time with work

    Sorry about the bragging, but the point is that play lets you do stuff more efficiently. And I think that play is the way to connect with younger kids. Showing kids how to climb things or how to play hide and seek makes it fun for you and them, and it lets you truly connect with all people.

  2. Chris U
    March 28, 2012

    Learning coaches where I work based a leadership session around Meyers-Briggs personality preferences (//, the session was enlightening and told me a lot about myself and the people I work with. An activity involved arranging our group based on what best described the way we felt or usually behaved – from one corner of the room (“Everything has to be in order before I leave work”) to the the opposite corner (“I can play anytime”).

    This activity was used as an illustration of our preference on the MBTI scale between Judging and Perceiving (I’ll leave it to you to read more on this).

    With 3 of us standing at the “play anytime” end we received particularly hostile comments from some of the “everything in order” end of the room where the rest were standing. They hated having to work with us, because we’re so untidy, unpredictable, unstructured, and never stick to any plan.

    Yes, I learned a lot from this of how I could be viewed by others, but more importantly I learned from my own analysis of where to stand how I actually feel about work in general. My whole work life has been more geared towards finding play in the work I do rather than wishing for the work to end so I can go home. One of the penalties for this freedom to enjoy my work (by shaping it to fit my needs) is that I can’t let the work go. This was also noted by my other 2 colleagues who regularly took work home with them or thought things through excessively on their own time.

    I recognise what you say about running as play, I don’t particularly enjoy a structured training program and when I do follow a program or treat runs competitively, I either get injured or don’t enjoy the experience as much.

    I’m learning to live with a better understanding of my preferences and where that leads me, but I also accept there is benefit in understanding that others may wish to do things differently and truly be more comfortable when they rely on the structure and rules of religion, social groups and organisations.

    If you were to see my desk, or observe me at work you would see that I am always looking for a different angle, defer making commitment to a rigid course of action, and my work area appears like random activities are taking place in conjunction. That’s how it is for me, and partly explains why people often turn to me to fix or diagnose problems and to troubleshoot for them when the pressure is on – I’m adaptable and flexible.

    When I go out for a run, I often don’t know how far or fast or in what direction I’ll be going until half way through the run.

    That’s how I like it, but I can see that others are averse to this way of life. Each to their own.

    I’ll wager you’re a ‘P’ preference sort of guy!

  3. “Play Is The Process. Fitness is the Product.” Embrace Play to Revolutionize Your Running, Then Your Life | Barefoot Running University | Jogger Tunes
    March 28, 2012

    […] Posted on March 28, 2012 by Gabriel .nrelate .nr_sponsored{ left:0px !important; } // Jason Robillard at Barefoot Running University: All too often, we focus exclusively on outcomes.  We care about finishing a distance, doing so in […]

  4. fitness
    March 27, 2012

    Competition certainly does diminish the concept of play does it not? To engage in an activity without competing against others or at the very least against oneself would be a difficult task for many to undertake.

    • Jason
      March 27, 2012

      Play and competition are not mutually-exclusive. The key is where the motivation originates from. Competition for the sake of competition is good (intrinsic). Competition to gain something (money, fame, approval, other extrinsic measures) is fleeting, thus not so good.

    • Erik
      March 28, 2012

      Play + competition = sports.

  5. Erik
    March 27, 2012

    Nice post. Playfulness is of course a key to aging well as well. Another reference you might want to check out at some point is Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture.”

  6. Sam H.
    March 27, 2012

    The practical, serious adult in me formulated ways that some professions can play. Take lawyers who defend known and hardened criminals. They can play by building defenses and protecting their rights. Or cardiac surgeons. They can play by making their next surgery a fun way to save a person from imminent death. I think that big city police chiefs need to play more often when it comes to the dealings of their citizens, rapists and petty thieves alike.

    Am I misinterpreting your suggestions? Or taking it in a different direction. Perhaps the U.S. legal system and general attitude/infrastructure needs to be reformatted to allow more people to play.

    • Jason
      March 27, 2012

      No Sam, your statements are spot-on. Any profession can bring happiness as long as there’s intrinsic motivation involved, which is the foundation of play.

    • Erik
      March 28, 2012

      If lawyers, surgeons, or police chiefs didn’t enjoy their jobs’ challenges, they’d burn-out. If you suffer burn-out, you’re doing something that isn’t fun, and should do something else. Lawyers are people who enjoy arguing. For high-risk surgery, you want a cold, arrogant bastard who enjoys the challenge of seeing if he can make your body work properly again, not someone who wants to be your friend and agonizes over the consequences of potential mistakes. And so on.