Last February I hobbled home from an attempted run around Green Lake near where I live in Seattle with sharp pain in my knee and ankle and a knot in my achilles that felt hard as a golf ball. In my visions of running a local race I dramatically overtrained and my body let me know. Too hard. Too Fast. Too much. It happened suddenly, with a tensing up of the calf muscle that would, itself, take months to heal.
Today I finished a full loop from my tiny house, a full 3.5 miles, with only a little bit of walking and I can safely say that I’m nearly at the end of the long slow road to recovery, fully expecting gains to continue in the days ahead as I jog around my favorite urban lake by foot at least twice a week in the months ahead, God willing. I’m confident because I’m finally a believer in the power of the heart to be my teacher.
The folks over at Soc-Doc have been preaching for years about the importance of not ‘overtraining’ and how you can avoid that danger by ‘listening to your heart’, in particular to the rate of your pulse while exercising. You need to find your ‘aerobic zone’, and they describe one process of some easy ways to find it here. Your zone is your pulse rate while exercising, and when you’re in the zone lots of good things are happening. The challenge though, is that this zone will feel too slow for people who are competitive, or prone to comparison, and both those things happen to be me. My zone requires that I keep my pulse under 135 while out jogging. When I do that, I’m breathing through my nose, and what I’m doing barely feels like exercise. It seems too easy and so what has happened too often in the past is that I’ve justified ‘trying harder’ by talking to myself along any one of these various lines…
“my watch isn’t recording my heart rate right. It’s actually much slower than the 150 it says because I feel great!” This kind of justification usually happens after I’ve quickened my pace because gray haired senior has passed me, and I’ve responded by saying, “you think I’m slow? I’m not as slow as I look. Watch this!” after which I pick up my pace, leading to excessive pulse, leading to my belief that my heart rate monitor is broken.
When your heart’s racing too fast, Soc Doc says that an injury is just around the corner. I can tell you from experience, three different times, that he’s right. “Fool me once, fool me twice…” there some saying about people who make the same mistakes but I can’t remember what it is.
Now, on the far side of the road to recovery, I can safely say that whatever the author had in mind when Proverbs 4:23 was written, it has a beautiful literal application. I’m now intent on guarding my heart.
When I’m running too hard (literally running, around the lake) my heart will let me know long before there’s an injury and I’ve finally learned to listen to my heard and slow down, or even walk if that’s what it takes, to stay in the zone. When I listen to my heart and obey it, like magic, I’m able to move around injury free.
There’s more though, as I’ve come to discover the same truths apply in lots of other settings as well. Sometimes I ‘run too hard’ during the day, trying to cram six meetings, a boatload of emails, study time, writing time, and family time all into a single day without any breaks for inhaling, practicing gratitude, or even paying attention to what I’m doing. My heart lets me know that this too is wrong. My pulse picks up, along with my stress level, as my body tells me this level of activity and engagement should be acute, but it’s become chronic. I need to slow down.
But the heart’s not all about warning and punishing me with a stick – it’s a rewarding carrot too. When I make the time each morning to meditate on my identity in Christ, and to spend a few minutes praying for the blessing and peace of Christ to be on the various people that come across the contact list of my mind, my resting pulse drops, and my stress level falls from wherever it was to, literally zero – perfect peace and rest. And of course, those are just the immediate benefits of meditation and prayer. The longer term chronic effects are even better as I find, over time, a greater capacity to be present in each moment and respond with a fuller measure of peace and wisdom to the things that are in front of me, rather than responding from a place of fear or frustration.
Wow! I’m amazed when I think of all the so called “spiritual” transformation that’s come about recently by paying attention to my physical heart! I’m starting to believe that in our lust to do word studies about the Greek and Hebrew meanings of the word heart and apply those narrow definitions to the text, we might be missing the fact that God, in God’s wisdom, knew that not everyone would have access to cook lexical seminary tools. So maybe we can apply what the Bible says about the heart to the cardia within us. Its wisdom can free us from addictions to performance, comparison, and the need to prove ourselves. And that, dear friends, means we’ll end up looking more like Christ. All because we began paying attention to our heart.