How to do an examination of conscience while running

As I have advanced farther into adulthood, I have found that opportunities to grow in humility present themselves on a daily basis (oftentimes multiple times per day). Of all of the activities that provide the most productive space for growth, though, the sacrament of Reconciliation and distance running rank pretty high on the list (right next to about 96.5% of my parenting moments, of course…).

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For me, the entire process of Reconciliation is fundamentally humbling. Of course the actual confessing of sins is a significant element of that experience, but the humility really begins with the examination of conscience. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains the importance of the examination of conscience as follows:

Before celebrating the Sacrament of Penance, one should prepare oneself with an examination of conscience, which involves reflecting prayerfully on one's thoughts, words, and deeds in order to identify any sins. (“Examinations of Conscience”)

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So, we are asked to prayerfully, honestly, and thoroughly examine our conscience in order to prepare for this sacrament. This prayerful reflection is so helpful in getting mentally and spiritually ready for confession, but, again, it’s a humbling process.

I don’t know about y’all, but running is also fundamentally humbling for me. Whether it’s while I build my mileage base as I work on regaining fitness, grit my teeth through a grueling hill-repeat workout, or just have a plain “bad” run during peak fitness and training, running is always ready to offer a healthy dose of humility. Since the examination of conscience and running both open ample space for humility, I have found that practicing my examination of conscience while running is a natural fit for me.

On long runs, I tend to be alone with my thoughts. I don’t listen to music, and the sounds of traffic don’t bother or distract me (I run in pretty populated areas because that just where I, personally, feel safest), so I have LOTS of time to just think on those 5-, 8-, 10-, 12-, 15-, 18-, 20-mile runs. The same goes for hill repeats – it’s just my thoughts and I as I go up and then back down multiple times over.

During these runs, I often begin to think through my past days/weeks, and reflect on my behavior, my words, my thoughts, my intentions. Being alone with my thoughts and accompanied by the sounds of my breath and my steps somehow provides the opportunity to see these actions, conversations, and thoughts much more clearly than I previously had. These reflections generally begin organically, meaning that I don’t suddenly say to myself at mile 4, “Ok, Jennifer, time to start your examination of conscience.” Once I am reflecting over the past several days, however, I generally realize that there are quite a few things that I need to deal with, and most of them need to be “dealt with” through confession. It’s at this point that I do say, “Ok, Jennifer, now it’s time to prayerfully think about what ELSE you’ll need to confess.”

Sometimes, during the toughest miles and most challenging hills, those times when my lungs feel like they might burst or my legs feel filled with lead, my most productive examinations of conscience occur. I think that the natural confluence of humility that comes acknowledging the raw vulnerability of both my body and soul yields a beautiful honesty – an honesty that I can’t always access when I am sitting still or when I am distracted by whatever it is that I allow myself to be distracted by. Running somehow gets me away from all those distractions.

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After a long run or a challenging hill workout, I’m generally pretty set to head to confession. Perhaps as you look over this week’s training plan, you might consider trying to practice the examination of conscience during one of your runs. You might just find yourself prepped to run to afternoon confession as soon as you conclude (and recover from, of course!!) your long run on Saturday.

Jennifer is a wife, mom of three, runner, and PhD. She and her family recently moved back to the Carolinas after a five-year grad school stint in the Midwest. Jennifer is a cradle Catholic, and she began running almost thirty years ago, participating in her first road races as an elementary-school kid at the annual Knights of Columbus Turkey Day Run. She frequently turns to both the rosary and distance running (oftentimes simultaneously) for assistance in embracing the joys and the demands of family life and academic life. You can connect with Jennifer on Instagram.