Life, Faith & Running
". . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
(Hebrews 12:1, NIV)
(Hebrews 12:1, NIV)
If you have spent any amount of time as an athlete or around athletes, you know that core body strength is a central component to training. If you are wondering what “core” muscles consist of, put simply, it is everything from your rib cage down to your hips. Most people typically only think of abdominals and 6-packs, but your pelvic muscles, mid and lower back muscles, and even your hip muscle are all considered your core. These muscles all work together to support your spine and skull. Isn’t that crazy, your core strength impacts you spine and skull.
Here is why core muscle training is a component of nearly every sports training plan: your core connects all the other muscles groups together and gives them the ability to have power, quickness and finesse. Did you know that it is a runners core muscle group that is able to keep her legs and arms from tiring quickly? Secondly, core muscle strength improves balance, another necessary component to nearly every athletic endeavor. Improved balance doesn’t just help an athlete out on the court, it helps you get through everyday activities safely.
Core strength can benefit even the non-athlete in providing better posture. You wouldn’t believe all the health improvements that come with a strengthened posture: better breathing because of a more open airway, and a decrease in risk of disc herniation and vertebrae degeneration. As you can see, strengthening your core muscles isn’t just to make you run faster, but they can bring you to better balance, prevent injury and increase your overall health.
Yet, if you are like me, you find core muscle training hard to commit to or stay consistent in completing. To be honest, I find lifting weights and stretching quite boring. It takes more willpower for me to do core strength training exercises for 10 minutes than it does to run for 90 minutes. You guys, this should not be so hard for me. I have been being told since the seventh grade that runners need to be strengthening their core in order to improve speed, prevent injury and balance muscle growth. To explain, when one predominately runs for exercise, certain muscle groups gain strength but others do not. This imbalance is actually what leads to many injuries.
I learned this the hard way in high school and college when I found myself with stress fractures in my femur bone. The muscles of my quad pulled away from the bone because the muscles in my hamstring were too weak (in comparison to to my quad) to hold everything together properly. You’d think after the pain and heartache I experienced with these injuries I would be religious about making sure my mileage is balanced with my core strength training. Alas, even though experience is a great teacher, I am not the best learner.
“Runners often don’t strength-train because they think there’s no time, but a strength session doesn’t have to last for 60 minutes for it to be effective,” she explains. “Taking 10 minutes off the duration of your run and doing a quick strength set provides more benefits than 10 more minutes on the road.”
More recently, after two c-section babies and a hernia surgery (getting old is so fun!), I avoided many core exercises out of fear that I would damage something inside and end up back on an operation table. Miraculously, I kept my mileage up and trained for a couple marathons without injuring my core, but my relationship with core training was distant and infrequent.
Then one day a few months ago an ache in my knee turned into a shooting pain. Day after day I thought it would just go away but it didn’t. After reflecting on what I knew about running injuries, a few visits to a physical therapist and rereading some “core strength training prevents injuries” articles, I decided it was time to get consistent with my core muscles regimen again. This was my only option because taking a break wasn’t: I was just a couple weeks into training for the 122nd Boston Marathon.
I pulled out my resistance ban, the list of exercises given to me from my physical therapist, and my dumbbell routine from high school and committed to two, 10 minute sessions of core muscles strength training a week.
You read that right, 10 minutes, twice a week. Not much time, right? Should be easy to do, right? In theory, yes. In practice, no. Sometimes when we know something will only take a few minutes it is easy to put it off all day. . . only to realize at bedtime we didn’t actually get it done. (Or maybe that is just me.)
And here is where I want to take a turn from the the physical to some implications of core strength training and the spiritual. You see, our soul has a center of gravity, a core that needs to be strong in order to stabilize us, guide us, and keep us breathing in the Spirit. And just like core muscle training, continual repetition of certain exercises is necessary for our soul to find balance, build up strength to prevent injury, and ultimately to keep running the race marked out for us. And just like it is easy to put off core muscle training, so too core training of our souls.
It is healthy to keep in mind that just like every athlete has a slightly different training plan based on her race goals, strength areas and weaknesses, so too your core strength training plan for your soul may look slightly different than mine. But I believe there will be three common exercises between yours and mine. Maybe we could consider these our spiritual crunches, lunges and dumbbell side bends:
Actively studying the words in the Bible: In a world full of information, opinions, and ideas that can spread in minutes, it is easy to get caught up in what is being said in the culture around us and forget that the grounding of our hope and faith are found in the words recorded in the Bible. I have found that without consistent time in the words of the Bible, it is easy to feel weak and injured by the words of others or the lies that come in the form of thoughts birthed out of comparison. But what brings us back to the truth of who we are, our purpose in the world, and what we are running toward is tucked right into the chapters and verses of Scripture. Choosing to live by faith, to believe in the promises of the Bible, and to allow the instructions to renew our minds, strengthens our core--our soul. The core spiritual practice of reading and believing the Bible will allow us to keep getting stronger.
Intimate conversations with God: In a world full of transactional conversations like text or messenger messages, and public conversations like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it is becoming increasingly challenging to have intimate conversations that birth courage, affirmation and relational depth. Our souls also then struggle to know what it means to have intimate conversations with God because our habits of conversation can be stuck in transaction-based or publicly-viewed communication.
When I look around I see many woman and men craving to be known, loved and accepted. Thankfully, there is a place to fill that craving--an intimate relationship with God. Most people would call this next exercise prayer, but what if we approached it more personally, as conversations with our Heavenly Father who knows us, wants to listen to our requests, and desires that we know that we are known, valued and equipped to live with power, strength, and balance (all provided to us through Christ). For me this often takes the form of journal writing and praying little prayers throughout the day. My conversations with God are not always auditory, but more like trains of thought redirecting my mind and heart toward thanksgiving. Sometimes they are simply phrases asking for help and strength in my weakest moments.
Reflective solitude: In a world full of screens, podcast, earbuds, and connections at our fingertips constantly it is hard to tell our minds and bodies just to stop. It is a very hard practice to intentionally choose silence and reflect on how we are doing in our heart, souls and minds. Maybe like my fear of returning to abdominal exercises after my hernia surgery, you fear being alone with your thoughts because it feels different or uncomfortable.
I totally get that. It is a strange practice in our world full of noise. But can I also say, for me, the exercise of reflective solitude has been the most impactful in balancing my mind, soul and heart. For me, this looks like sitting in silence in the dark with a cup of coffee prior to my kids running down the stairs in the morning. Other days it is closing all the tabs on my computer, opening a blank word document and writing down whatever comes. On the more rushed days, it is jotting down a few bullet points on a small notepad I keep next to my bed. As an introvert, I have found reflective solitude to be powerfully strengthening.
Here is the thing about these exercises, they don’t need to take up your entire day in order to be effective. The reason I settled on two, 10-minute session of core strength training was because Samantha Lefave, of Runner’s World Magazine, reported that just 10 minutes had a significant impact on strengthening muscles. Sometimes that is exactly what we need to hear in order to get going on a plan. We need to know that we can attain it. We can set 10 minutes aside in our morning to read the Bible. We can take 10 minutes before bed to have a conversation with our Heavenly Father (expressing what weighs heavy on our souls or what we are grateful for him providing in that day). We can set aside 10 minutes of our run to intentionally let our soul reflect on who we are and open up our hearts to hear from God.
I believe if we just gave 10-30 minutes of time most days to these core strengthening exercises we would start to feel more deeply rooted in who we are, what we believe and how to use what we have been given to bring love, hope and truth, first to our own souls, and then to the souls of the people around us.
For a multitude of reasons core muscle strengthening and core soul training are hard to stay committed to. First, as I mentioned earlier, it is easy to put off those exercises that you know will only take a few minutes because “you will fit that in later.” Second, the exercise may not seem to be directly correlated to your goal. Putting on more miles seems like the most logical way to get faster at running. Doing acts of service seems like the most logical way to demonstrate God’s love to others. (And I am not saying to quit doing these things). But in both cases it is what you are working on in the inside (the muscle fibers, the tethering of your identity to Christ) that keeps you strong and prevents injury when you go out to run or serve. Third, self-discipline is so hard. It seems bad habits are hard to keep and good habits are hard to start because we are prone to desire comfort and predictable habits over getting outside our comfort zone and putting some weak muscles to work.
The fight to keep your core muscles strong and your soul strength up is real. We are daily in a battle between what our mind and flesh desire and what we know our soul and body need to become strong, to prevent injury and to remain healthily balanced in body and soul. And if we aren’t taking intentional steps toward engaging in fighting back, we will likely find our beliefs injured and our souls craving strength. We will likely find our minds weak in focus or swaying from here to there based on circumstance, culture and new information.
The good news is that even if we find ourselves in those injured or distant places, we are ALWAYS invited and welcome to come back to our core. Every day we wake up breathing we are given the opportunity to make different choices, start afresh, engage in the battled for sustaining a strong heart, soul and mind. Everyday. Single. Day.
When a runner’s core is strong she is able to engage more of her muscle groups as she runs, increasing her efficiency. The more she trains her core muscles her endurance increases making her ability to move down the racecourse more effectively and with increase stamina. In addition, her odds of getting injured while on course decrease.
So too with the runner of the Christian faith. When her soul is strong in the Lord and in His strength (from spending time studying the Scripture, meeting intimately with her Heavenly Father, and creating space for reflective solitude), she will have steadiness, efficiency and stamina to hold to her beliefs, serve others and endure the least desirable circumstances. But it will most likely start with and be built on those minutes spent away from the racecourse and the crowds, repeatedly completing her core soul exercises.
Just as the core muscles work together to support your spine and skull, core spiritual exercises of your faith will support your mind, soul and heart. Thus, making you strong for your race and your people, potentially preventing injury from the enemy, and equipping you to run with grace and perseverance all the paths marked out for you.
Don’t put off starting your training until tomorrow. Start today. Choose an exercise. See if you can do 10 minutes. Then try tomorrow to do 10 minutes again. And again. And again. Then when the big race (the test, the trial, the hard circumstances) comes, watch and see how strong you have become 10 minutes at a time.
Her family and friends know her as, Jaci. She is the wife of a pastor, a mom of four, writing and communications education instructor, a visionary and an avid runner. As a firm believer in the power and effectiveness of the body of Christ united together to live out the Great Commission, she holds fast to this verse, "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Of equal importance to her are these words, "...let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).
Posts in the Run for Your Life, series: