Jogging and Spirituality: Three Ironies

For the record, I run with New Balance shoes.

For the past several years, my spirituality has been profoundly shaped by jogging.

There is nothing novel about this connection between exercise and spirituality—it stretches back to the New Testament where Paul likens the training of the body to the training of the soul (1 Cor 9:24-27). In this, it stands within the tradition of asceticism in the Church—to benefit the soul by denying the desires of the body. Exercise, as the self-denial of comfort, is today the most widely accepted asceticism in our world—praised for its benefits to body and mind (although most often, given our widespread vanity, to body).

When I jog I give a dedicated time, two to three times a week, to silent, solitary activity. I don’t listen to music, and I don’t run on a treadmill in front of a television. Free, thus, from distractions, I find this to be among the most rewarding times of thought/prayer in my life. I do my best thinking while I jog, I find that I write better sermons when I’ve jogged during the week, and now, when I need to work through an idea, I think to myself, “I need to go for a jog about this.” My thought, spiritual, and prayer lives are shaped by this regular exercise.

Sometimes my thoughts are more reflexive than others, and on several occasions I have found myself ruminating on the direct connections between spirituality and jogging. I find there to be a number of jogging truths that are also spiritual truths, poignant in part because each of them stands opposed to our natural human habits; each is a lesson that must be learned, and is not intuitive. Hence, I would like to share the following ironic truths about both jogging and spirituality.

Note: I look nothing like this man when I run.

1) Run hard uphill, run gently downhill. Our natural inclination is to run slowly up a hill, and to run quickly down one—to allow gravity to have its way whether going up or down. But an irony of running is that it is better to press yourself going uphill, and rest yourself going downhill. If you run slowly up the hills, you will grow quickly weary, often discouraged, and the hills will seem to be unending. If you run quickly downhill, you will give yourself the impression of speed without the reality of training, and you risk the danger of injury because of the loss of control that comes with downhill running. Instead, the runner needs to learn, against the grain of his instinct, to push through the hills, and to slow down, resting, on the downhills. When this practice becomes our new instinct, replacing the old one, we will have even, successful runs.

The spiritual application is direct. There are uphill periods of our faith, when prayer, devotion, and church are a painful slog, and downhill periods in our faith, when these practices are a joy. Out of instinct we retreat from spirituality when it is difficult, and wait for it to be easy to do its duties. But this is a disastrous spiritual path, because it is precisely when your spiritual journey is most difficult that you most require your spiritual disciplines—prayer is most important when most difficult. And it is a deception to believe that we are spiritually ‘fit’ when, in reality, we are only enjoying the ease of a spiritually ‘downhill’ period of life. And the ironic truth is that the most rewarding times of our faith are not when our faith is easy, but rather when faith is difficult and we remain obedient. Hence, each period of difficulty in our faith is a time to press ourselves, and each time of ease is a time to rest ourselves.

2) Control your breathing all the time. Human instinct tells us to breathe heavily when we are out of breath, and to breathe normally when we are not. But jogging effectively means breathing regularly throughout the duration of the jog. In other words, don’t wait until you’re out of breath to breathe. When we wait to be out of breath, our breathing is shallow and quick—we gasp, rather than breathe deeply, and don’t get the most out of our oxygen. A marked and controlled breathing pattern evens the heart rate and keeps the mind alert during a jog.

Once again, the spiritual correlation is direct: we must not wait to be out of ‘spiritual breath’ to breathe. If we wait until we are spiritually worn out, tired, and beaten to seek the necessities of our faith we will not get the most out of them. We will have shallow devotions because hurried and desperate, rather than anchored devotions. Our devotions, in other words, will be shaped by our anxieties, rather than the other way round. We spiritually breathe during peaceful times, so that we can breathe effectively during trying times. Regularity and evenness in our devotional and Church lives is essential for our faith.

Quitting, of course, has little to do with one’s best.

3) Resist the temptation to quit. This principle composes a significant part of every jog. The first five to ten minutes are miserable, and every part of you aches to quit. The middle is usually when a jog is enjoyable, although some days—in heat or cold or rain—they are terrible as well. And when nearing the end, closing in on whatever finish line you have established, a small voice creeps in to say, “You can quit sooner, you’ve done this much, after all!” Resisting the urge to quit, then, is what jogging—and asceticism in general—is really about. In fact, I find myself, despite all the good I get from jogging, coming up with excuses to put it off—being tired, other things to do, the weather, etc. The decision to jog, then to keep jogging, then to keep on jogging, then to jog to the set finish line, is a continuous war against the quitting, inertial self. Laziness is the state my body enjoys the most, and jogging is a matter of putting that laziness to death.

Once again the spiritual connection is one-to-one. And the rule is this: that bodies physical as well as spiritual are subject to inertia—the temptation to give up—and that this is a temptation that must be staunchly resisted. Before each soul stands duty and the beckoning call of obedience, but within each soul is an inertia that cries out to quit and be left alone. Choosing God, like choosing to jog, sometimes means choosing against your judgment, against your feelings, and against your will. But it is here that, in fact, we train the will, because obedience is only obedience when it is chosen, and not when it is accidental. And therefore we must learn to choose God before we start for the day, during the first five minutes, then when our day is easy, and especially when the day is at its difficult end.

Of this ‘end’ I have a regular line of thought that runs through my head at the close of every jog. I see my finish line—a certain tree or driveway up ahead—and immediately think of the end of my life. I am tired, my breathing is difficult, I want to quit, but the question that prods me forward is, “Will you quit your faith at the end of your life? Will you give up on your devotions when you are aged and decrepit? Will you stop praying when thought becomes difficult?” And in response to these proddings I press myself to run faithfully to the finish of my course, living, through each jog, a small parable of my future spiritual life, with the will to remain faithful to the end of my life.

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