A Philosopher's Blog

Why Runners are not Masochists (Usually)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2014

Palace 5KAs a runner, I am often accused of being a masochist or at least having masochistic tendencies. Given that I routinely subject myself to pain and recently wrote an essay about running and freedom that was rather pain focused, this is hardly surprising. Other runners, especially those masochistic ultra-marathon runners, are also commonly accused of masochism.

In some cases, the accusation is made in jest or at least not seriously. That is, the person making it is not actually claiming that runners derive pleasure (perhaps even sexual gratification) their pain. What seems to be going on is merely the observation that runners do things that clearly hurt and that make little sense to many folks. However, some folks do regard runners as masochists in the strict sense of the term. Being a runner and a philosopher, I find this a bit interesting—especially when I am the one being accused of being a masochist.

It is worth noting that I claim that people accuse runners of being masochists with some seriousness. While some people say runners are masochists in jest or with some respect for the toughness of runners, it is sometimes presented as an actual accusation: that there is something mentally wrong with runners and that when they run they are engaged in deviant behavior. While runners do like to joke about being odd and different, I think we generally prefer to not be seen as actually mentally ill or as engaging in deviant behavior. After all, that would indicate that we are doing something wrong—which I believe is (usually) not the case. Based on my experience over years of running and meeting thousands of runners, I think that runners are generally not masochists.

Given that runners engage in some rather painful activities (such as speed work and racing marathons) and that they often just run on despite injuries, it is tempting to believe that runners are really masochists and that I am in denial about the deviant nature of runners.

While this does have some appeal, it rests on a confusion about masochism in regards to matters of means and ends. For the masochist, pain is a means to the end of pleasure. That is, the masochist does not seek pain for the sake of pain, but seeks pain to achieve pleasure. However, there is a special connection between the means of pain and the end of pleasure: for the masochist, the pleasure generated specifically by pain is the pleasure that is desired. While a masochist can get pleasure by other means (such as drugs or cake), it is the desire for pleasure caused by pain that defines the masochist. As such, the pain is not an optional matter—mere pleasure is not the end, but pleasure caused by pain.

This is rather different from those who endure pain as part of achieving an end, be that end pleasure or some other end. For those who endure pain to achieve an end, the pain can be seen as part of the means or, perhaps more accurately, as an effect of the means. It is valuing the end that causes the person to endure the pain to achieve the end—the pain is not sought out as being the “proper cause” of the end. In the case of the masochist, the pain is not endured to achieve an end—it is the “proper cause” of the end, which is pleasure.

In the case of running, runners typically regard pain as something to be endured as part of the process of achieving the desired ends, such as fitness or victory. However, runners generally prefer to avoid pain when they can. For example, while I will endure pain to run a good race, I prefer running well with as little pain as possible. To use an analogy, a person will put up with the unpleasant aspects of a job in order to make money—but they would certainly prefer to have as little unpleasantness as possible. After all, she is in it for the money, not the unpleasant experiences of work. Likewise, a runner is typically running for some other end (or ends) than hurting herself.  It just so happens that achieving that end (or ends) requires doing things that cause pain.

In my essay on running and freedom, I described how I endured the pain in my leg while running the Tallahassee Half Marathon. If I were a masochist, experiencing pleasure by means of that pain would have been my primary end. However, my primary end was to run the half marathon well and the pain was actually an obstacle to that end. As such, I would have been glad to have had a painless start and I was pleased when the pain diminished. I enjoy the running and I do actually enjoy overcoming pain, but I do not enjoy the pain itself—hence the aspirin and Icy Hot in my medicine cabinet.

While I cannot speak for all runners, my experience has been that runners do not run for pain, they run despite the pain. Thus, we are not masochists. We might, however, show some poor judgment when it comes to pain and injury—but that is another matter.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Perhaps you’re a benign masochist?

    Would you be satisfied running shorter, painless distances?

    No pain, no gain?

    Or do you enjoy pushing yourself to the point of pain, and resolving to run through it?

    The key words being: “enjoy” and “pain”…


    3. A willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences; a tendency to take pleasure from one’s own suffering.

    The Benign Masochist

    “Clearly it takes a different person to not only want to run a marathon, but to run it on the razors edge of physical disaster. This near pain loving attitude has been termed ‘Benign Masochism’ by Paul Rozin. He argues that sensory pleasures like tastes and other bodily sensations are fundamentally different from aesthetic pleasures like music. The further points out what we all know that humans often seek situations that innately give rise to fear such as roller coasters, skydiving or perhaps running a 4 minute mile. 
    He goes on to use the attraction of the chili pepper to some as reasoning for the unique attraction humans have to innately fearful, dangerous or painful situations.

    “This ‘Benign Masochism’ is an interesting concept that seems to run contradictory to the concept of self preservation. Yet, the qualities that support it (drive, determination, adventure, poise) are very in line with the unique qualities that, when coupled with our cognitive faculties, lead humans to their unique role in the world.

    “I think Rozin’s theory has some legs to it. I think the epitome of the Benign Masochist is a distance runner who mile after mile and race after race keeps coming back for more…”

    Read more: The Benign Masochist – http://www.crpusa.com/the-benign-masochist/

    “We provide systematic evidence for the range and importance of hedonic reversals as a major source of pleasure, and incorporate these findings into the theory of benign masochism. Twenty-nine different initially aversive activities are shown to produce pleasure (hedonic reversals) in substantial numbers of individuals from both college student and Mechanical Turk samples. Hedonic reversals group, by factor analysis, into sadness, oral irritation, fear, physical activity/exhaustion, pain, strong alcohol-related tastes, bitter tastes, and disgust. Liking for sad experiences (music, novels, movies, paintings) forms a coherent entity, and is related to enjoyment of crying in response to sad movies. For fear and oral irritation, individuals also enjoy the body’s defensive reactions. Enjoyment of sadness is higher in females across domains. We explain these findings in terms of benign masochism, enjoyment of negative bodily reactions and feelings in the context of feeling safe, or pleasure at “mind over body”. In accordance with benign masochism, for many people, the favored level of initially negative experiences is just below the level that cannot be tolerated…”

    Read more: Glad to be sad, and other examples of benign masochism (Paul Rozin, et al) – http://journal.sjdm.org/12/12502a/jdm12502a.html

    Photo – Marathoner vs Sprinter: Which body would you rather have? – http://gavinhogarth.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Marathon-Runner-vs.-Sprinter2.jpg

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      Longer distances tend to hurt less-I can go easier in a half-marathon than in a 5K. I definitely dislike pain-it is something I put up with to achieve my goals. That is why aging is rough: it hurts more to go fast (even though my new fast is slower than my young fast).

  2. WTP said, on February 10, 2014 at 11:59 am

    While I cannot speak for all runners, my experience has been that runners do not run for pain, they run despite the pain. Thus, we are not masochists. We might, however, show some poor judgment when it comes to pain and injury—but that is another matter.

    No, not masochists. Narcissists, perhaps. Yes, the internet needed yet another picture of Mike shirtless. As if “runners” all share the same qualities that they simply must tell/preen to us about, They are a rare and noble breed. And yet these qualities do not necessarily apply globally to other athletes such as “bikers” or “weight lifters or “swimmers” or yadda-yadda-yadda. Well, bikers are pretty much globally d!cks these days, but that is another matter.

  3. apollonian said, on February 10, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    So Mike thinks he’s gotta write an essay on how he and other runners are not masochists? Is the next essay going to be on runners not being child-molesters? Ho ho ho. Well, my own pt. was that running gives a “high” that covers pain which pain might otherwise rightly cause one to run less–an example I gave was Jim Fixx.

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