It wouldn’t surprise any of you if I told you that physical activity is one of the most commonly recommended natural remedies for stress, anxiety and depression.
But what is it about running, in particular, that improves our mental health?
When you break it down, it becomes really clear to see the intrinsic link between healing from mental illness and running.
When you are suffering from mental ill-health, one of the main obstacles is trying to bring your coping mechanisms back. The coping mechanisms that help you deal with whatever life throws at you. Running strengthens these coping mechanisms through:
- Setting and attaining goals
- Experiencing success and overcoming frustration
- Creating and maintaining motivation
I am sure we have all heard about the effects of endorphins which are released when we exert ourselves… but it would be wrong to assume that every run we perform will leave us with the same “Runners High”. No. Often, your run will feel sluggish, it will be a mental challenge as much as a physical one and you could end up feeling worse after a run than before you started.
Is this starting to sound contradictory and actually bad for your mental health? You’d be forgiven, but hear me out first.
Good Mental Health is centred (mainly) around these core strengths:
Self-Esteem & Confidence
One of the most notable aspects of running is that, as an individual sport, you must rely on yourself for results. Over time, as running become easier and a person becomes fitter they will realise that they are fully equipped to better themselves and overcome challenges. This then transfers to other areas of their life, thus increasing their sense of capability at dealing with obstacles and stressors. Running is demanding and the rewards and frustrations of running fall only to yourself. Rising to the challenge of the demanding endeavour builds your ego and self-esteem as you realise that you are capable of doing great things… alone!
As mentioned before, not every run will be a “good run”. There will be days when the legs feel heavy, the lungs feel about 5 times smaller, you can’t get your head to focus on the task at hand… and on those days, you will complete the run thinking you ought to never run again! Resilience, consequently, is built through overcoming these bad runs and deciding to just try again. Developing the ability to visualise future success and tying up your laces just once more – that is resilience.
Running encourages us to set both short-term and long-term goals. The long term goals are often what motivates us to head out for a run, and the short term goal (of say, completing 5k this Thursday evening) provides us with determination to see something through. Focusing and visualising future achievements (e.g. running a race, or completing a particular distance) is so healthy. The goal is tangible and attainable and it is our determination that is strengthened to seeing us through to the completion of that goal. No one can put in the training for us. Creating and attaining goals is an invaluable experience to then attribute to other areas of your life – be that career, relationships, other life-long dreams and hobbies. Through achieving our running goals, we become more confident in our ability to see things through and develop a sense of self.