Running and Mental Health

In line with Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to touch upon my personal experience with regards to how running has helped me.

9 years ago, an incident took place which I have struggled with on and off over the years. I’m not going to elaborate on this incident because that’s not the purpose of this post – and I don’t mean that in an ‘oooooh I’m such a mysterious and complex individual!!’ way. I simply want to highlight that I have tried and tested various coping mechanisms, and running has had by FAR the most impact.

I reached out for advice back in 2009 and exercise/running did not crop up once – it was not suggested as a form of therapy, therefore at this stage I didn’t even consider the positive impact that running might have on my mental health.

It seems like this is no longer the case; the UK official guidelines now prescribe exercise as one of the first-line treatments for a variety of mental health issues, which I think is great.

Why does running help? This is something that I have done a lot of research on, and it has become apparent that this is about so much more than endorphins. I am (obviously!) not a medical professional and am also in no way qualified to spout out potentially inaccurate second hand medical research, therefore I won’t attempt to! However, I do want to highlight that I have reaped both the physiological and psychological benefits of running – both of which are AMAZING.

Goal setting is often listed as one of the psychological benefits of running and setting new running/fitness goals is now something that really motivates me. A couple of upcoming races that I am particularly looking forward to are the Great North Run in September and taking part in my first ultra-marathon early next year (although the thought of an ultra does kind of make me feel physically sick – any advice would be much appreciated!)

I’m not claiming that running is a ‘miracle cure’, and there are certainly other factors that have played a significant role. These include some big changes I implemented with regards to nutrition and alcohol consumption (although I still greatly enjoy drinking all the wine and all the gin and all the cocktails when necessary). However, from personal experience, running is the best therapy I’ve ever had; it goes beyond the ‘runners high’ and initial buzz of endorphins and delves into something much deeper.

I would love to hear about your experiences with running and mental health – has running/fitness helped you?

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Things I wish I knew…

I was a rather ignorant runner for many months, partly due to lack of experience, and partly because I ignored 86% of the advice I received from seasoned runners.

I would like to think I have now matured both as a runner and as a general member of the human species, thus have taken on board feedback from those more knowledgeable than myself.

There are many things I wish I knew when I started running, but I have attempted to summarise these learnings into 3 key points:

Rest days. REST. R E S T

I saw rest days as lazy, and therefore very rarely took a day off from running. #NeverMissAMonday #NoDaysOff etc. etc.

Obviously this is complete and utter BS, and through a combination of skipping rest days and not hydrating sufficiently (to be discussed in a later post), I ended up fatiguing myself to the point where I ended up in hospital. So do NOT be as moronic as me.

Good running shoes

For the love of all that is holy, invest in a pair of running shoes that fit and support your feet effectively!! I spent almost £200 on my first pair of running shoes, which was ridiculous for 2 reasons:

  1. There is simply no need to spend so much £££
  2. The only reason I purchased said running shoes was because they were leopard print with bright pink soles

These leopard print monstrosities (please see them in action above at my first ever race! I also insisted on holding my phone – WHY) did not provide the support required, PLUS they were too small as they were my normal shoe size. Your running shoes should be at least a half size larger than your everyday shoe, due to swelling in your feet when you run.

The moral of the story is: please go and get a gait analysis – it’s free of charge, and only takes 10 – 15 minutes.

Engage with the running community

I am very lucky in the sense that I already knew quite a few fairly keen runners prior to beginning my running journey. These are the people who are genuinely interested in my race day nutrition plan, compression socks, and skanky post-marathon toenails. Equally, I am more than happy to hear about their chafing disaster or mid-race vom.

However, Hortencia* from Finance couldn’t care less; therefore, sparking up a conversation with Hortencia is fairly pointless and potentially de-motivating.

It took me over a year to build up the courage to join a running club, and therefore completely understand that this can be intimidating for new runners. Other alternatives include taking part in local races, various apps (for beginners I would recommend Couch to 5K/RunKeeper/Nike+) and/or finding a training partner.

My point is that it’s wonderful to have people (or a person) around you who not only motivate you, but also have an understanding of your end goal.

I hope these 3 tips have been beneficial for new runners – please do let me know if you have any feedback or questions!

*Please note I do not work with anyone called Hortencia. She is a fictional character, created solely for the purpose of this tale.

Why did I start running?

Prior to May 2016, I ran sporadically, and by sporadically I mean I ran a couple of times a month at a push, and loathed every second of it. I was not particularly interested in health and fitness; my diet consisted of microwaveable macaroni cheese/crunchy nut cornflakes/copious amounts of wine, and at school I hated PE lessons so much that I would skive off and hide in the music cupboard (behind the double bass, to be precise).

In April 2016, I went to China for a family member’s wedding. I don’t want to sound like a terrible cliché, so I won’t say this trip completely changed my life – but it most certainly sparked a massive change for the better. Throughout this two-week trip I had a varied diet of fish, seafood, noodles, steamed veg and so on. It is also worth noting that this was a fairly active trip, with lots of walking and cycling. Although the increased exercise and change in diet was more by chance than a conscious effort, by the time I’d arrived back in London I realised how much better I felt for it.

The benefits of eating well and implementing regular exercise soon became apparent – which sounds extremely obvious, but I think sometimes you have to experience these things first hand! I began running 5k a couple of times per week after work with some colleagues, and whilst I can’t pretend I magically fell in love with running, it stopped becoming a chore and instead became a form of escapism, a massive confidence booster, a stress reliever and so much more.

Two years and two marathons down the line, I can safely say that I am the healthiest, strongest version of myself. I’m aware that I’ve just contradicted my previous statement by saying something MASSIVELY clichéd, but it’s simply the truth of the matter.

There is one aspect of my lifestyle change that I found particularly challenging, and that was the negativity I received from a few of my close friends/family members/colleagues (just to clarify, this was a small amount of people! But nonetheless it came as a surprise). Frequent comments were along the lines of:

“You’ve become so boring, you used to be so much fun!”

“Your breakfast/lunch/dinner looks disgusting/unappetizing/dull!”

And my absolutely FAVOURITE (i.e. my worst): “I preferred how you looked before you started running” (this is one that I still hear quite frequently).

Whilst the above comments are not particularly offensive, I did begin to find it somewhat draining to hear the same comments on a regular basis. However, in the grand scheme of things, these comments do not impact me.

Running has had a positive impact on so many areas of my life – although people often shy away from mentioning weight loss, ultimately a combination of running and a shift in my approach to nutrition has helped me to achieve a strong, healthy body that I am proud of. Of course it goes a lot deeper than that – improvements in mental health and general wellbeing for a start, but I will delve into that in future posts.

I hope you enjoyed my first post – any feedback would be much appreciated! Also, if you found it boring/pointless/really average/really really average, feedback is still much appreciated.

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