THE BLOG

7 Reasons Why Running Is Good for Your Soul

01/24/2013 10:41 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013
  • Michael O'Loughlin Writer on religion, politics, and the Catholic Church. www.mikeoloughlin.com

Like many, I started running while in college to get in shape and lose a few pounds. I became a more dedicated runner after grad school, first finishing a 10-mile race, then a half-marathon, followed by a couple of full marathons. It was during this long-distance training that I realized that while the physical benefits were obvious and welcome, that the spiritual benefits of running were just as beneficial to me. Below are seven reasons why running is good for your soul.

1. Running keeps you humble.

During one race, I was running well ahead of my predicted pace and felt really good about myself. I was passing lots of people, zigzagging my way through the slower runners to claim a spot far ahead of where I would normally run. It was a crowded stretch so I wasn't able to get past people as quickly as I'd like, so I started muttering under my breath. Outta my way, slowpoke. As I settled in, a man who must have been in his 70s nudged me, a fairly fit 20-something, out of the way as he weaved through the crowds to find a comfortable spot for himself. Any pride that I had been feeling was replaced with humility, the same feeling I get whenever I'm passed by a mom pushing a twin-baby stroller or when I try to pass someone by going a bit faster than planned only to have them pass me a short while later when I run out of steam. As with everything else in life, there's always someone better and someone worse. Being reminded of this is a good thing, and it happens in little ways with almost every run.

2. Running makes you happier.

After tedious or stressful days at work, it's difficult to muster up the energy even to change into running clothes much less hit the pavement. I can be irritable, deflated or downright angry some days. In the winter, when it's dark by the time I head to the gym, it's hard to fight the temptation to sink into seasonal despair. But when I convince myself to go out for the run, after the first mile or so I've forgotten what's got me upset. By the second or third, I'm focused on happier things, thinking of loved ones or vacations or career goals, and by the end, my mood has actually changed. I'm happier, my responsibilities feel lighter, and I'm more open to seeing God in all things.

3. Running causes kindness.

A few years ago I read a story in the Wall Street Journal in which some scientists said that sidewalk rage was just as real as road rage. That is, if you live in a big city and are stuck behind slow walkers, you experience the same emotions and chemical changes in your brain as those experiencing road rage. Finally, I could blame my feelings walking through D.C. on science! Now, compound that with running on busy downtown sidewalks right as work is getting out. It gets ugly. But during these runs, as I'm weaving in and out of crowds, I see all sorts of people. Some have canes, others struggle with each step, some have obviously been dealt a bad hand in life, and many just seem a bit deflated. Running can be grueling. It's a struggle to overcome. In a way, it helps me imagine the struggles others face and prompts me to be a bit kinder, to love my neighbor a bit more. When I'm running, those on the sidewalk with me are my neighbors. And rather than shove them out of the way, I smile as I pass and try to make things a bit brighter.

4. Running makes you proud, in a good way.

Pride's a sin. We all know that. But setting a goal for yourself, working hard to realize it, and then being proud of your achievement is spiritually healthy, especially in a culture where instant gratification rules. This is a quiet pride, not boastful or arrogant, that stems from both humility and success. When I was training for my second marathon, I developed tendonitis in my Achilles. I went to a sports medicine doctor who asked me how fast I had run my first marathon. He nodded and explained that obviously I wasn't built for running, that my time wasn't that good and that I should think about some other way to exercise. I left his office a bit down but determined that I'd prove him wrong. After some physical therapy and hard training, I hacked off 20 minutes from my previous personal best. I was proud. I had overcome challenges and naysayers. Life is full of these and it takes all we have not to fall prey to them. Running gives us skills at avoiding this.

5. Running allows time for prayer and meditation.

Those miles take time and there's only so much music or podcasts one can take. Inevitably, there will be long bouts of silence. This is the perfect opportunity for prayer or meditation. Often, I find myself on trails surrounded by nature, with time to reflect on Creation. Or surrounded by other people, prompted to discern our place in God's world, on how we respond to others. Prayer by rote distracts from the physical pain. The motion of legs and arms swinging one in front of the other frees the mind to contemplate on something else, perhaps bringing clarity to a perplexing issue. Or thinking of nothing at all and listening for God, a type of prayer that is difficult in a hyper-connected world, seems appropriate for long runs.

6. Running tests your limits.

The first time I ran a 5K I struggled to finish. A few years later, someone had convinced me I could complete a famous 10-mile race in D.C., and I did. That got me thinking that maybe I could run just a few more miles to finish a half-marathon. During my training for that race, a good friend was in the beginning stages of training for a full marathon. We realized that I was actually running further than him, and he cajoled me into thinking I might finish a full 26.2 miles, too. I found the notion ridiculous, but he persisted. In my mind, I was still the overweight high school football player struggling to complete the three-quarter mile loop our coach required of us, not a marathon runner. But with some persuasion and prayer, I was running 14, 16, 20 miles. I was ready for a marathon. Running tested, and helped me surpass, my limits. It's during these moments when I recall St. Irenaeus' famous maxim, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. We never know just how fully alive we can be if we don't push ourselves past where we think we can go.

7. Running keeps you patient.

Long runs take time. No matter how fast, or slow, you run, it takes a while to finish a 10- or 15- or 20-mile route. While the physical demands of marathon training are tough, the mental demands of spending an entire afternoon repeating the same physical motion thousands of time can be just as grueling. If you're not patient, you won't make it far, both physically and emotionally. When I'm stuck in a slow moving line, sludging through a staff meeting or stuck on a broken down train, I use the patience I acquired while running to fight off aggravation and anger. And patience, they say, is a virtue. So we need to exercise it in order to keep it. Patience helps our interactions with others, reminding us to treat others not as obstacles to our own desires, but as other human beings, our neighbors. And like the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, we love God only by loving our neighbors. Running gives us the patience to do just that.