Two summers ago, I began training for my first triathlon.
The swim is the leg of the triathlon that comes least-naturally to me, so I knew that I ought to prioritize training time in the pool. Although pool workouts were the most demanding part of my training, the practices it took to become a more resilient swimmer have made me a more resilient person.
In these workouts, I was challenged to unlearn bad habits such as swimming flat and breathing on just my right side. With the help of a swim coach, diligent attention, and countless laps of swim drills, my lap time gradually began to decrease. My perseverance did more than get me to a new personal record, though — it deepened my commitment to honest communication, restorative rest, and prayer.
It’s physically and mentally difficult to regain good swimming form after a sloppy flip turn. My arms and legs need to work harder to make up for lost momentum. I struggle to redirect my mind away from the mistake I just made and toward regaining a more effective form by adjusting my body-roll, kick, and breathing.
The present-moment focus I need to improve my swimming form serves as a good image for what I need to maintain good communication with loved ones. When I make a mistake or encounter conflict, it can cause me to unintentionally shut down, get distracted, or react in anger instead of finding a way to re-invest in the conversation. In those moments, if I can adopt the same attentiveness to the moment that I need in swimming, I can notice what is going on inside of me and either redirect my attention back to the conversation or apologize or ask for clarification.
Such active attention to the moment in communication takes a lot of focus and energy. It usually feels easier to avoid that effort than to seek clarification or address an offense. Keeping good form in communication, however, has deepened my relationships and trust in others. Like the fundamentals of good swimming form, communicating well keeps me on track and makes me stronger because I can rely on the strength of my relationships.
My experience of training for the triathlon generally involved doing something different than what I wanted to do in the moment. The week before my triathlon, for example, when my anticipation for the competition climaxed, I rested. It was difficult to wait, though, after so much training!
During my training, it was important for me to take one or two rest days each week, even when I didn’t want to — the rest actually helped me swim, bike, and run faster. In fact, one week I was over-eager and exercised every day. The following week, my muscles, which had no time to recover, failed to perform at a higher level. To train for a triathlon is to exercise and rest well.
That’s been a good lesson to apply to my professional life, too. Breaking for rest when more work remains ahead, or when those surrounding me continue to work feels counter-intuitive. But it’s precisely when it’s most difficult for me to step away from work that I typically return rejuvenated, ready to not just get work done, but listen more attentively to others, collaborate more generously with my colleagues, and listen for God’s will in my work.
Matthew and Kim Bloom write on avoiding burnout, and they suggest using 15 minutes each day to relax, and a longer amount of time about once a week for a restorative niche — some activity that you really enjoy, but that also requires some level of skill or mastery. Just as rest is essential to strengthen an athlete, resting well makes me a more effective and resilient professional.
Like exercise, learning new ways to pray involves training. Before I can settle into new forms of prayer I get distracted by a persistent internal dialogue: Am I doing this right? Is it working? Even with familiar prayer practices, my mind drifts: What’s for dinner?
It has helped me to consider prayer as less about a technique and more about a practice. Martin Laird wrote a book about silence and prayer, Into the Silent Land, where he describes a technique as involving “a certain control that aims to determine a certain outcome.” By contrast, he says, “A spiritual practice simply disposes us to allow something to take place.” In other words, prayer — like training — is mostly about showing up.
My triathlon training has helped me recognize that distracting thoughts do not mean that I am doing something wrong in prayer. They arise naturally because we all have a lot going on, so I’ve learned to recognize whatever distractions emerge and gently redirect myself back to God. That, in and of itself — redirecting my mind again and again towards Christ — is an act of prayer.
Honing my practices of training and restorative rest have enhanced my athletic performance. In addition to making me stronger and faster, they have also helped me build greater trust, deepen relationships, and remain committed to prayer when I am distracted. The result has been resiliency — both in terms of physical stamina, but more importantly in my interior life.
Sometimes I wonder why I invest so much time and energy into physical training. I’ve concluded that training allows me to mingle personal effort (which is a kind of devotion) with an awareness that the source of this gift of strength is beyond me. It feels like I’m cooperating with God to develop my body’s capacity — and pushing the limits of my physical performance also develops my inner resources to be a more resilient person.