I don’t run far and I don’t run fast. I don’t push myself. I never compete. I don’t even run alongside other people. My early morning run is 100% “me” time.
People run for different reasons. For me, it’s pleasure. And tied up with that are the mental health benefits. Free from the inbox and the deadlines, with only the movement to think about, I can reach a state where the week’s worries fall away for a while. I feel physically relaxed, mentally calm, and just, well – fortified.
My work requires me to be gregarious, energetic, 110% committed. But I’m a natural introvert and I worry a lot, and in between periods of high energy and creativity I also suffer some debilitating lows. I’ve learned that to counter this, I need to give myself time and space to recharge. And it turns out that running – something I only took up in my early forties – is a brilliant way to do that. It’s a sanity-saving, family-saving, job-saving, possibly even life-saving, escape mechanism.
Go for a morning run and you feel virtuous for the rest of the day. Your metabolism kick-started, you sit at the desk with a clearer head and renewed enthusiasm. In fact there are few situations in which a run – however short and however sluggish – isn’t good for your physical health. You can feel the muscles relaxing as you concentrate on your footfall and heartbeat, the oxygen reaching the parts of your body that it just doesn’t get to while you’re hunched over a keyboard. You sleep better afterwards too. And those physical things in turn help your mental health, reducing anxiety levels, dissipating tension. It’s widely accepted that running – or indeed any kind of physical exercise – can help counter anxiety, depression and other mental health risks. It certainly helps keep me positive.
I particularly value the sensory benefits. Once you’re “in the zone”, and no longer worrying about being out of breath, you can be mindful of the good things around you. I run early, when it’s quiet and no one can see me(!), and I feel immensely cheered by a bright frosty morning; a misty, rose-gold autumn sunrise; the first spring buds catching; birdsong in the summer before the sun gets too hot. I relish the smell of the Co-op’s bakery, the clatter of other people preparing to start the day. I like watching for the Christmas lights in December, the bunting put out for national celebrations, and at the moment, the “thank you” rainbows.
Of course I’m not keen on the wind and rain, or the dark mornings, or the pavement potholes or the speeding traffic dousing me with gutter water, but I tell myself those are only temporary blips. Even in the UK, it doesn’t rain all the time.
My mental health problems have been with me throughout my life, never extreme, but always there to erode my confidence, stamina, resilience and productivity. The apparently random low patches, the obsessive worry and perfectionism and fear: all these I believe are kept manageable because of the running. I take anti-depressants too, and I’ve tried CBT and a little bit of mindfulness; they all help to keep me functioning. But I need that regular time to disengage from reality and get myself straight again. On the occasions when I haven’t been able to run, for instance due to injury, I’ve struggled.
You have to be careful with running, mind. It can be addictive. It can become an obsession. If your insistence on running a certain amount or at certain times is preventing you from getting enough sleep or spending enough time with the people who matter, then you need to find a better balance. If it’s leaving you dog-tired, or injured, or if it’s becoming just another thing to beat yourself up about, do please re-think your approach to it: running should be a treat, not another problem.
My final tip, for runners and would-be runners who want to improve their mental health, is this: smile as you go. I happen to believe that the mechanical action of forcing your face into a smile increases the flow of endorphins and gets you into practice for smiling through the rest of the day. That’s why I run before everyone else has woken up: people don’t always respond well to a Lycra-clad weirdo dashing past with a rictus grin on their face.
 See eg https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-using-exercise; https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/physical-activity-and-your-mental-health/about-physical-activity/; https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/exercise-for-depression/; https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm