Roads Less Traveled: NFP and Running
Natural Family Planning. NFP. Go ahead: make a joke. Preferably one I haven’t already heard.
My road to Natural Family Planning (NFP) was more a meandering trail run complete with false summits, rolled ankles, wrong turns, doubling back, and eventually reaching the peak, only to realize the trail doesn’t actually end there. The valleys and the vistas still keep coming, and if you want to hear all about it, drop me a long run invite the next time you’re in San Francisco. We’ve got plenty of terrain to match the tale.
More important than my own personal journey, though, is the comparisons we can draw between both practices. Running and NFP actually have many parallels: they both seek constant physiological feedback, they both require commitment and perspective, and they both ultimately embrace something bigger.
The Feedback Loop
As runners, we are constantly seeking to know our bodies: “How do I feel today?” “Am I recovered from my workout?” “Should I attempt to increase my mileage?” “Is this new hamstring pain a passing nuisance or a serious threat?” “Are these chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels worth the inevitable GI distress when I sneak out the door for my run?”
Our bodies give us data and we make decisions on what to do with that data on a daily basis. It’s part of how we learn to love our bodies as the beautiful machines they are, honing them, tweaking them, putting them to work to find out just what they are capable of when driven by our limitless souls.
In fact, as Catholics, we desire our souls to be precisely that: unbounded, infinitely-worthy things. And as Catholics, we should also see our bodies that way, too. Presently, our bodies are bounded by space and time, but it won’t always be that way. Why should we not love them and celebrate them and USE them as the gifts they are, even when there are worldly limits that exist to test us?
As one who practices NFP, the feedback similarly comes in in regular ways. It’s absolutely staggering how much one can learn about their body by simply being educated on how it works. When I finally sat down to become a student of the practice, I actually felt angry that no one had taught me it before. It was like this elementary biology lesson combined with practical how-tos and a whole new world of input my body was trying to tell me.
On my own personal journey alone, tracking my cycles and working with an NFP-friendly doctor, I’ve corrected low thyroid levels, irregular periods, and a stretch of infertility due to concerning HgA1C levels which led to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and mild adrenal fatigue (oh, how I miss those chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels). My running improved as did my reproductive health.
Unlike so many women who find the rigors of womanhood an inconvenience at best, a curse at worst, I actually find my cycle is the pièces de résistance when it comes to knowing my body, loving it, and caring for it month in, month out.
A Long-Term Commitment
There are really no shortcuts in running. To lose the weight, to run the entire route, to finish the race, to hit the qualifying standard, to break the tape, you have to do the work.
The workouts may look different for everyone, but there is a certain drive that a runner needs to eek out incremental improvements en route to big goals. And those advances all come through diligence, through patience, through trust, through honest-to-goodness hard work.
When I’m praying the Sorrowful Mysteries on an easy run, I often reflect on these elements of the sport. I think about how my favorite race is the 800m -- that’s about how far Christ carried his cross from Jerusalem to Calvary. In typical guardrail-to-guardrail style, my second favorite distance is the marathon: it takes me slightly less than 3 hours to run that -- about how long Christ hung on that cross. His finish line was death and the salvation of all souls. Mine is hopefully a PR and the smiles of my kids and a beer. I can’t do His commitment justice, but I can desire the virtues running builds.
Likewise, commitment is no small part of NFP. It requires patience, diligence, trust, and work. It is a commitment to our health, to our marriages (although, important PSA: nothing says you have to be married to benefit from awareness of your fertility cycles), and to God. It’s not always easy, and it takes up a sizeable chunk of our lifespan on this earth. Above all, it’s a commitment to not wanting to turn “control” into our idol. How shiny and desirable that can be when the alternative of actually listening to our bodies requires so much more effort.
Running is never just about the run. Maybe we run to build confidence, maybe we run to heal, maybe we want to add a few years to our lives when genetics look grim. Maybe we run because someone told us we couldn’t, or because we just need a break from the noisy, demanding world. Either way, there is something that we seek that is bigger than that dusty stretch of road and bigger than the digital confirmation of calories burned. Every step might have hurt, but we were called in some way to suffer through it anyway.
Similarly with NFP, as informative as it can be to learn about our hormone cycles, their potential deficiencies, and the causes behind those, that’s not usually why we commit to it. We embrace it because we want to honor the way our bodies were created to work. We want to cooperate with them and celebrate their power. We want to see our nature as women as a gift and not as something to be controlled and defeminized.
When I ask myself why I run (every Tuesday during the penultimate repeat on the track), the answer is the same as to why I embrace NFP. Turns out, it’s also the same answer as to why I am Catholic: I desire to worship something that is bigger than me but doesn’t discount me.
I am, body and soul, a medium of worship. I am not insignificant as a human, but rather I am inspired by greatness. I desire greatness. I am capable of greatness. And the greatest thing I can observe and participate in as a human is love.
The Love that loved the universe into being and loved freedom into our souls and loved a plan of salvation into the mess that results from said freedom, THAT is what I want to worship and I want to worship it with every tool I’ve been given. I want to worship it with every cell of my body.
Yes, this body -- this short-waisted, sweaty, graying, wrinkling body that still might produce some PRs and babies yet -- I will worship with it in the Eucharist and on the trails and around the family dinner table. It may not be a popular path, but I pray nothing ever stands in my way.
Cradle Catholic from Orange County, California, Allison discovered her love for running at 13 and went on to compete for the University of Notre Dame. Currently, she trains with the Impala Racing Team in San Francisco, one of the nation's oldest and largest all-women's running teams. Allison has run every distance from the 800m to the marathon, hitting some National Champion highs on the Masters Track & Field scene as well as winning the 2012 Eugene Marathon. You can find her keeping her four young kids alive, promoting classical education, pursuing PRs between babies, or on Instragram.