4 ways running has improved my mental health

Disclaimer! This post includes a short recommendation of Nike Run Club and Headspace. I’m not associated nor sponsored in any way by Nike nor Headspace (but if you’re in their PR and Marketing team and want to, please HMU 🙂 ).

You know the type. The friend you used to have but who now runs marathons and you only hear from when they’re inevitably trying to raise money for charity. Or the colleague who’s using half of their precious lunch hour to go for a “quick run” to “blow off some steam”. Alternatively, you’ve seen herds of attractive twenty-something year olds pant around the city at dusk, all while being prodded by an overly energetic team leader dragging a beatbox, 90s style, while screaming encouraging words that sound a bit more like negging.

Then March 2020 arrived, and the world went into lockdown. UK residents were discouraged from leaving their homes unless for one of 5 approved reasons, which included exercise. The claustrophobia of feeling trapped in my apartment, plus removing the daily hour or so of power-walking to and from the office, meant I was figuratively scratching at the walls with unresolved emotions and anxiety. 

A pair of slippers and a pair of sports shoes left by a door frame, as if they had just been discarded

How or why will remain a mystery, but on a chilly 3rd April, around 6pm, I put on my decrepit pair of trainers, strapped my 8-year-old sports bra, and threw on my gym kit that was coming off at the seams. I trotted down the nine floors from my flat to the street and just… ran. I know I’m not the only one. The UK had one of the lightest lockdowns in Europe so veterans and newbies flocked to riversides and running trails; encouraged by social media challenges, like Run for Heroes where athletes were encouraged to run 5km, donate £5 and nominate 5 mates to do the same.  

Every cell in my body burned and begged to stop in my first run. My brain filled with the all too familiar bullying telling me that I looked stupid, my feet hit the floor too loudly and that I was a waddling whale and an embarrassment. But I just kept running until I came to a halt at the feet of the Tate Modern. I was panting so much you’d thought I had just finished a speed race, but hell did it feel good. I ran my first 5k. A week later, my second 5k. Then one day, I ran 6k, and after that, I started running without walking breaks. I was so in love with this new me that I forgot about my tired old body, whom I’d never respected enough for regular exercise. I got shin splints and got put out of the game for nearly six excruciating weeks. 

Relentless sessions of yoga, stretching after long walks and learning to take it easy again mean that I’m back to 4-5 gentle runs per week. The time off has taught me how much I now rely on running as a mood regulator, something I’d never have expected. 

So let’s have a look at how running can positively influence your mental health:

1. Running is meditative

I’m learning that the key to a successful run lies in breathwork and being aware of one’s body sensations. In common speak, this means: be present. You can’t run efficiently if you’re not paying attention to how your body feels, where it hurts, when it feels good or even where you’re going. Many years ago I downloaded the Nike Run Club app to help, but I never truly saw the benefits of it until this year. They’ve got a 4-week programme aimed at beginners as well as a number of guided runs in collaboration with Headspace, the widespread mindfulness app. Running the final 100m to my favourite park in London, listening to “This Is Me” while Andy Puddicombe and Chris Bennet cheer you on, has to be one of my top mindfulness moments. 

I now use running as an additional way to be mindful and process difficult emotions – whether that’s work-related stress, ex-induced anxiety or simply day-to-day frustrations.

2. Consistency in running means progress

The saying goes “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. In a similar way, you won’t run a marathon on your first day. It’s taken me more than four months to run 3-4km at an ok-ish pace, and my initial goal of running 5k in 30 minutes or under has had to take a back seat. I’m now prioritising building endurance and habit, and readying myself to start a more strict running schedule in autumn when the weather is cooler. It sounds odd to say, but I had to learn to run slower in order for me to make it a part of my routine. As a direct result from that, I’ve noticed I’m looking at my life under a different light. For example, I no longer look at peers and friends and compare myself ruthlessly, but I am committed to achieving small goals that I know will help me in the long run. 

3. Running forces you to take care of yourself

Repeat after me: you can’t function without the correct nutrition. I am no RD, so I won’t go into what you should or shouldn’t put in your body. Diet is extremely personal and I’m no one to preach. However, something running has taught me was that I needed to feel nourished and satisfied if I wanted my body to respond positively during exercise. After years of disordered eating and fad diets, not only was I surprised to see cravings for “unhealthy” foods dwindle into thin air, but I became able to eat them in moderation AND guilt-free. Second to getting my tattoos, running has been the single best thing I’ve done for my body confidence. 

4. Running releases “happy” hormones that help combat anxiety and depression

It’s a well-known fact exercise releases endorphins, naturally occurring hormones our body produces that makes us feel relaxed and happy. While you can encourage endorphin production through any form of exercise, I’ve found running to be particularly satisfying. Some refer to this feeling as the “runner’s high”, and scientists at John Hopkins University attribute it to the release of dopamine – another hormone that can make us feel bliss. Nonetheless, please don’t expect miracles when you start running or exercising consistently. Mental health depends on much more than a delicate hormonal balance, and external factors can and do contribute significantly.

A white woman, with a dove tattoo on her left shoulder, runs away from the camera, wearing long black leggings and black sports top, beside a line of palm trees with mountains and short buildings in the distance.

To run, or not to run?

While I’m aware I’m one more successful 5k to be a complete convert runner, I also know that there isn’t one way of exercise that works for everyone. You might find running boring, or triggering, or an enabler to overthink. Some folk prefer high impact sports or team activities. The beauty of running is that it’s cheap, independent and portable, so you know that no matter where you go, you’ll always have access to movement that makes you feel good. If you still haven’t found the exercise that helps you move in a way that feels good, why not try running? Let me know how it goes. 

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