In recent months, the importance of mental, as well as physical, health has been thrown into sharp relief by the shadow the pandemic has cast over many lives. One bright light that has helped guide people through these testing times has been running.
Ask any runner why they run and the answer will often be related to their mental health – whether they realise it or not! Running for ‘me time’, ‘headspace’ or simply to ‘blow away the cobwebs’ all suggest there’s something very special about the time we spend pounding pavements, tracks and trails that goes way beyond keeping physically fit and active.
And the experts agree! The mental health and wellbeing of all our participants, supporters and partners is a priority for us – so we’ve been taking a closer look at the science behind some of the most commonly cited mental health benefits of running and asking those in the know for their tips on harnessing the power of regular aerobic exercise to boost your overall mental wellbeing. Find out what we discovered below...
Running can help combat depression
After and during exercise your body releases endorphins and endocannabinoids, both of which have long been associated with the well-known concept of ‘runner’s high’. Researchers found that there was indeed a correlation between the ‘endogenous opioids’ the brain releases after sustained physical exercise and a perceived euphoric state in runners. What does this mean for the everyday runner? It suggests that if you’re feeling down, aerobic exercise – like running – could help raise your spirits and reenergise you, even if you don’t quite achieve full-on euphoria (we can always hope)!
"Training and exercise has always been a great tool for keeping my mind fresh and healthy and I recommend everyone to try a bit of exercise, where they can, to help boost their mental well-being."
Eight-time London Marathon winner and six-time Paralympic gold medallist
It can boost your self-esteem
We spoke to wellbeing and performance specialist Chevy Rough about how exercise can make you feel better about yourself: “Training for a marathon – or any running event – can do wonders for your confidence, across all aspects of your life. Quickly, you find yourself asking what else you could do if you put your mind and body to it? Along the way, of course, you may question your ability, when an unfinished training run or injury knocks your self-esteem. No one deserves to feel this way.
“To help your confidence, remind yourself there’s rarely a perfect training cycle. It’s OK to have off days, down days and duvet days. A simple way to boost confidence is to learn to congratulate yourself for each small step you take every day: for getting out of bed; for getting out the door; for doing your warm-up. These small moments will help your body release feelgood chemicals to fuel the positive psychology to keep going.”
It can help fight anxiety
Many people view running as a perfect opportunity to put their worries to one side and just focus on the here and now (or their favourite podcast!). But as well as simply getting you outside in the fresh air for a bit, evidence supports the idea that physical activity can actually help prevent anxiety from emerging – and that’s regardless of demographic factors such as age, education or income. So why not try 30 to 45 minutes of being present in the moment when running? It may help interrupt your flow of thoughts so you can see things from a different perspective.
Setting and achieving goals feels good
Chevy agrees that goals are great in helping you achieve your bucket list for life, but warns there’s a danger they become a weight that holds you back from enjoying the journey. Happily, he has some words of advice to help you stay on track: “It’s vital to remember that any number of variables could impact your marathon training or general running over the coming months. How will your body respond to an increase in mileage? How will the stress of work in week eight impact your long run? How will the kids getting colds in week 10 affect your motivation?
“Nothing in life is fixed, and it’s essential to realise the goal you set yourself today may have to change as new variables show up in your life. It’s not a case of not setting goals, but it’s important not to put all your joy into a black or white outcome. Consider aligning your success with the effort you put in, instead of the fixed outcome you hope to have.”
"Running is a huge part of having a sound mind in a sound body for me. I love being out in nature, having space to think or just be in a meditative state as I run."
Second-fastest American woman marathoner in history
Running can improve your sleep
It’s a rather cruel paradox in life that the more exhausted (both physically and emotionally) we feel, the less likely it seems we’re able to get a good night’s sleep. If worries about the state of the world, a hectic work schedule or lively growing family mean you’re not getting as much shut-eye as you’d like, you may want to try running. A recent US study found that moderate aerobic exercise may increase your production of the night-time hormone melatonin. Why is this important? Well, it regulates your internal body clock, positively impacting sleep quality – in fact, the study goes on to suggest that individuals with sleep problems may consider using exercise to improve aspects of sleep
Try it for yourself!
While our findings might not be a surprise to anyone who’s ever felt on cloud nine after returning from a wet, windy winter run they had to drag themselves out to do, we hope you’ll agree it’s great to see how running really does make a positive difference to our mental health.
Still don’t believe us? Why not try running for yourself and see where it takes you!
How to seek help
Please note that while running can be a powerful mood-enhancer, it is not a replacement for professionally prescribed therapy or other treatment for severe mental health disorders. However, it is a tool that anyone can use to help combat the negative feelings that we all experience at different levels at different times in our lives.
If you feel you are struggling with your mental health in any way and would like to seek help, please contact the mental health charity Mind – they can provide information, advice and support that’s right for you.