Lockdown may seem like an odd time to write about the health benefits of running. Many major marathons are cancelled. But looking outside, it’s hard not to notice the increased number of runners on our streets and in our parks – frustrated gym bunnies are pounding the pavements rather than the treadmill during these COVID-times.
For a long time, I have recognised that beyond the obvious physical health benefits of running, that there are numerous mental health benefits as well.
Done in isolation, running can help you overcome some of life’s biggest challenges at home and in the workplace. Done as part of a group, running can open up an infinite amount of possibilities for interacting socially with fellow runners, as well as providing a support network when the going gets tough.
I recently read the rather brilliant ‘Running: Cheaper Than Therapy – A Celebration of Running’ by Chas Newkey-Burden. Have you ever read something that feels like someone has opened up your head, peered right inside, taken your thoughts and put them on paper? Well, this book is that for me.
This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. It is packed with facts, insights, stories, tips, and the latest thinking and research when it comes to the mental benefits of running. I am in debt to the book’s author for some of the insights and quotes that I am about to relay to you.
I have been running on and off for about 12 years now. I was never sporty as a child but was not adverse to exercise, opting more for swimming and cycling as I hated all contact sports. In my late 20s, I was living and working in London and fully embracing all that big city life entails: working hard; long commutes; drinking too much in bars; eating out most evenings; and, at times, neglecting my health.
I am fortunate to have not suffered from depression so far in life, but I have struggled with anxiety from time-to-time. Brought on partly by my inability to say ‘no’ to anything in and out of work, and also from not being the best sleeper in the world.
Getting into running was mostly for me about trying to lose a bit of the waistline, a typical motivation for anyone starting out. But it has given me so much more than this – it has helped me manage my anxiety better, providing clarity of mind when I have needed it most.
Post-run high, should it be legal?
Did you know that running is like smoking dope? Now, I am not advocating for you to hang up your runner trainers and take up weed as sport instead. However, Newkey-Burden explains that scientific evidence from the University of Oxford shows that the post-run high is brought about by a substance called ‘cannabinoids’ being present in the body which is also present within, you guessed it, marijuana. It can present that high and calming influence over you. Which is partly why running is good at combating depression.
Within Running: Cheaper Than Therapy we learn from the comedian and author David Baddiel about how running worked better for him at lifting his depression compared to medication.
Jeff Galloway, Olympic runner and coach, explores how running can have huge benefits for our mental health and how it can have a direct impact on brain circuits for the better. For those that run for 45 minutes of more regularly, this includes:
- New brain cell growth at any age
- Quicker problem-solving
- Better decisions
- Quicker learning
- Better memory
The loneliness of the long distance runner
Running has traditionally been seen as a solitary exercise as it doesn’t involve physical contact with other people – which is not bad during these times of social distancing. When I was in my 20s, I didn’t like spending much time alone. I was a social creature by nature and would often struggle with a night in alone.
Running has taught me how to have a better relationship with myself. When I was training for big events, I would often be out running alone for 2–3 hours at a time giving me the chance to escape into my own thoughts and reflections. But running can be social too.
Running as a group sport
As much as I would advocate for running alone particularly when you have a goal in mind, it can be a very social sport as well.
I returned back to Scotland four years ago after a decade in London. It may sound ridiculous, but I was nervous about moving to my hometown of Glasgow partly because I was giving up my active social life in the big smoke. I joined a running team within the first week of returning and it has been a tremendous way of connecting with new people.
Glasgow Frontrunners is part of a global network of running teams that are LGBT+ inclusive. This means that we welcome people from all walks of life – straights are welcome too! Frontrunners is a hugely supportive running network. And it’s not just about the running.
We know that statistically speaking, if you identify as LGBT+ that you are more likely to have your own mental health struggles. Members of Frontrunners are not only getting the physical and mental benefits of running by joining, but there are social benefits too: the team is also helping people who would otherwise be isolated in their own situations. Some members have also reported how being part of a running team has helped them combat depression.
I have to take my hat off to Glasgow Frontrunners during Covid-19 for how enterprising they are being. A Facebook group has been set up so that members, who are now all lone-runners, can photograph themselves and post encouraging messages to each other. The group has also set up a ‘Don’t break the chain challenge’ which is a group event planned around making sure that there is at least one Frontrunner out running for each minute of the day.
Running and writing
‘Writing and running have several parallels,’ Alastair Campbell once said. Much like Campbell, I would say there are a lot of similarities between running and writing and one can feed off the other.
I, like many other writers, find I have my best ideas when I am out running. For example, this morning when I was out running I started to write passages for this article in my head!
Also, running can act as your break from writing as well particularly when you reach the inevitable ‘writers block’.
I have never authored a book, but I would imagine that you would have to take a similar approach to tackling a marathon in that you would need to plan well in advance, take regular breaks, and play the ‘long-game’ – it’s not going to happen overnight.
Heather Small and the London Marathon
I have run the London Marathon twice in 2014 and in 2017.
I was inspired to run it having previously been a spectator while hungover. If ever you want to put yourself to the test, I suggest you attend a major sporting event (when/if we have them again) after a heavy night’s drinking. It works wonders for spurring you on to enter a race out of guilt.
At the time of training for my first marathon, I had a life coach. He and I were using visualisation techniques to help me through a work situation. Basically the exercise involved me picturing in my mind something or someone who would help motivate through a tricky situation and to achieve my goals.
I decided to put my newfound skills to the test at the London Marathon and used visualisation on the big day. It came to mile-18 of the marathon. I was out of breath and feeling really bad. So what did I do? I conjured up an image of the singer Heather Small in a float coming up behind me singing ‘Proud’, the theme tune to the London Olympics from two years before as a way of spurring me on! It may sound ridiculous and naff, but it did have a genuine impact and got me over the finish line.
Sleep glorious sleep
Many runners claim that with increased exercise, and time outdoors, that their quality of sleep improves. For me, this unfortunately hasn’t been the case. At the height of my training, I actually found my sleeping was worse.
I spoke to a sleep expert at the University of Surrey, where I working at the time, who asked me what time of day I was running. When I said it was the evening, he explained that often endorphins can fly around the body for up to an entire six hours after exercise, which could explain why sleeping was so hard. He suggested switching the runs to the morning.
The ‘Home Half’
I have also felt that running with a goal in mind, and a personal challenge, is a sure way to step up both your physical and mental fitness. When I lived in London, I used to challenge myself to ‘landmark runs’ – taking in sites such as Big Ben and the Tower of London.
A couple of years ago when in training, I decided to invent my own half marathon called the ‘Home Half’. This took in every place that I had lived in Glasgow – from the place I was born, to the first flat I owned. The mental challenge of remembering all the addresses was as tough as the running!
There is something about challenging yourself mentally during a run which can detract from the often physical pain of running.
Headspace and breathing
The association between running and meditation may seem like an odd one – running is about exerting yourself whereas meditation is about sitting still surely? But there are links. It’s all in the breathing and the repetitive nature of running can be strangely meditative. I highly recommend trying the Headspace App, as a way of improving how you breath – this has definitely enhanced my own running technique.
Go gadget go
There is no doubt that there are gadgets out there, and we are all guilty during lockdown of doing extra purchases on Amazon. From GPS watches, to Strava, and the latest trainers, you can easily get absorbed in all the gear. But, why not trying running gadget free? To my mind, the best runs are when you switch off completely from technology and social media and you are literally escaping into the wild.
Image credit: Freepik
Mike Findlay is book review editor at Psychreg. He is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. Connect with him @MikeFindMedia.
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