Running can be both a friend and foe. It is a chance to feel better but also a chance to guilt yourself, to give evidence to the negative thoughts that try to conquer your mind. Rationally, we all know that running can make us feel better, but how do we put that into practice?
Because running is what you make of it. Running used to be a way to earn my meals, to guilt myself further and hide from my emotions. Now running is my relief, it is my way of showing my body that I love it, and giving my mind the rest that it deserves. I even ran a half-marathon to finally stop purging. It isn’t always the case. There are days that I put on my running shoes and then stroll around moodily or don’t even leave my house. But I prefer to focus on the days when I did not want to run, I didn’t want to do anything, but I managed to get out there, and through that, I got back the rest of my day, I found a break in the dark clouds.
So how can you help yourself to run when depression is clouding your mind?
Do you ever ask yourself this? Because you should. Too often we run for the wrong reasons, or we make excuses to ourselves. If you’re running to be healthy, don’t let weight be the main focus of that. If you’re running to be able to compete, be sure that is what you want rather than what you should want. Understanding why we run is vital in getting the motivation to run.
We all know that running can significantly help our mental health. But even so, easier said than done. And be sure that you’re not just telling yourself that’s why you’re running, and secretly letting it fuel your body insecurities or social duties. Work out what running gives you so that you can remind yourself of that when the time comes to gear yourself up.
A runners high is real and so powerful. It is the most incredible shot of adrenaline that you can get healthily. I love a good dose of runners high; it is the main escape from my depression. But sometimes it only serves to highlight the contrast, being so euphoric reminds me of how bad it is when it’s gone. Are you running for that high? Or does running help your depression or mental health in other ways?
When I struggle with motivation for running, I no longer think of the runners high. Instead, I look at frequently running as a way to push past my body dysmorphia and insecurities, as I am making the active choice to run not for calories, but for my health and mind. It is a way of proving this to myself. I know that if I don’t run, the depression will only sink its claws further into my mind, and then there will be the added guilt of not running that day. I know that running will get me away from my desk and daily stressors, even for half an hour. Running will give my mind a break, which will help me later when I need to use it.
I can’t run later than the morning. I’ve wondered if this is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy that I tell myself, but it remains true. If I don’t get up and immediately pull on my running gear and get outside before I can fully wake up, I probably won’t go. I don’t like running on a full stomach, and I don’t like running in the middle of the day. You need to work out when works for you and capitalise on that.
If you’re not sure, test mornings as these are proven to work for many. Set everything up the night before so that you don’t have to think. Thinking leads to doubt and gives you time to remember how comfortable your bed is. The hardest part is getting up, so just sit up. Once you are out of bed, you won’t be as tempted to go back, and you’ll just grumble until you’re outside. Seeing a beautiful sunrise when I run in autumn and winter is so worth it. It makes me stop for a second and feel grateful, no matter what else is going on in my life. You start your day off right. Depression could crawl in later, but you have an extra line of defence to hold up against it. You can tell it, and yourself, that you have achieved something today, that you can achieve anything else.
Not a morning person? Not a problem! Find what works for you. The only issue with running later is doubt settles in, but on the other hand, it is a great way to fight the depression slump of the afternoon. Just choose a time and stick to it, as then you’re more likely to follow through. Writing down what you want to achieve makes you 42% more likely to do it. Tell someone, so that you feel responsible for actually doing it.
Maybe you need an evening run to clear your head of the day, to help you avoid negative habits. Whatever works for you. When I was trying to kick a pattern of self-harm, I taught myself to go for a run instead. Running for less than fifteen minutes always felt ‘not worth it’ before, as you get sweaty for ‘nothing’ and have to shower, it just seemed like a big hassle. But I changed my mindset and instead used a quick ten-minute jog to give my mind the break it needed. That time between the thought of self-harm and being back home was enough to make it seem less appealing. Running gave me both space and the release I needed for those negative emotions. It isn’t easy, and I definitely won’t pretend that it is. But it is worth it to find a healthier way of coping.
When you feel depressed, the smallest tasks can feel impossible. I have days where getting up to shower seems like such a struggle. I have days where I am so exhausted that I can’t get up. The key is to set small, realistic goals. Break things down. When I feel so heavy inside, I make myself wear my running gear, but plan only to walk. And often I’ll just do that; I’ll go for a stroll instead. Sometimes I’ll be outside and decide to jog for one minute and then walk, and that one minute gets longer and longer.
Break it down into manageable steps. Don’t force yourself to go for a forty-minute run when you feel like the world is crashing around you. But recognise that it could help, and make it smaller boxes that are easy to tick off. Get changed, go outside, walk, jog for a minute, walk, jog for another minute, see how you feel then.
Sometimes an issue with running is that it gives you too much space to think. My mind is always on overdrive, and I can feel myself growing depressed with the clarity to think and reflect. So I break my run down to stay focused. I think of how far I am so far, and how much further to go, what fraction is that of my run, etc.
On that note, distraction also comes through what you listen to. If you’re a runner who hates listening during your run, feel free to skip this point. But I will say not to knock it until you try it! I usually listen to podcasts for longer runs, as I tend to get bored with music and find it repetitive. I also like feeling extra product, as this quells my concerns of not doing enough and the gateway into self-doubt. But when I am feeling low and forcing myself out of the house, listening to someone talk isn’t ideal. So for those instances, I have specific playlists that give me the boost I need. For me, it is women singing about self-empowerment and how they don’t need any men. It is a collection of hits spanning the decades, and it can get my body moving. I also am a big Swiftie and find her 1989 album to be such a boost when running.
It comes down to the same message to find what works for you. Get those songs that boost you up and make a playlist of them. Then play that during your run. Tell yourself to run for the entirety of the song. The trick is that by the end, you probably feel alright to continue.
Starting is the hardest part. This is always the case, but even more accurate for running while depressed. Let music distract you enough to begin, and the rest will come.
Humans love habits; this is simply a fact. We love doing well and hate breaking a streak. For those of you who had Snapchat, you’ll remember the horror of breaking a photo streak with a friend, twenty days of ugly selfies down the drain! Use this in your running. Make yourself build up a habit of running every day, or otherwise specific days of the week, and mark off every time that you do it. I apply this to all of my mental health activities. When I was struggling with stopping my purging, I used to mark down every day on a calendar that I didn’t do it. The thought of having to start all over was enough to make me hesitate and really question what I was doing. It can sound superficial, but something primal in us feeds off the accomplishment and hates the idea of losing all our hard work. But also recognise the limits in this, such as when you grow more focused on the momentum rather than enjoying and appreciating your runs.
Make a simple calendar and mark off each day you run. Feel free to use a special colour or smiley for those days when you really didn’t want to run. And celebrate yourself. Help your mind to make the connection between going for a run and something you like. Follow your run with a nice bubble bath or delicious croissant. You got up and went for a run when your mind was at its worst, that is amazing, and you should feel so proud of it.
The mind is a powerful thing. Anyone suffering from depression or other mental illnesses is very aware of this fact. But how can you use this to your advantage? Running is good for our mental health, but did you know that it can also be therapeutic? If you’re struggling with your depression and go for a run, use it as an opportunity to deal with the issue.
You can imagine leaving the negative thought or pain in your home, and then watching yourself run further and further from it, weakening it with each step. You are distancing yourself from that negativity, and proving to yourself that you can escape it.
You can also use running as a symbol of your mental strength. Every step, every leap is a reminder of the gift of your body. Use it as a moment to feel grateful for this body that carries you through life and allows itself to push and be pushed. Be thankful for your mind, as much as it struggles it is the one that you got on this run, that wants to achieve and feel better. Choosing to feel bad is easier than choosing to feel happy.
Use the smaller goals mentioned earlier but assign them to each negative thought or issue. If I can reach 3km, I’m not worthless like my mind tells me, that proves it. If I can run without stopping for twenty minutes, then I can handle that big presentation at work, I am strong enough. Whatever your hurdle, apply it to your run and give yourself the chance to overcome it.
Focus on the joy of running. The relief in your body, the strength in your steps. I love to think back to Phoebe in Friends, reminding Rachel and us of the time when we loved running, young children sprinting for the sake of it. Those kids weren’t running for calories or goals, they were running for the thrill of it.
Depression is already exhausting, and so exercising frequently with it will render you extremely tired. Being often tired is like leaving the door wide open for depression, as you’ll be susceptible to negative thought cycles, self-doubt and mood swings. So if you want to run more with depression, also rest more. Don’t go all in and set impossible goals that will only render you weaker. Take it easy after runs, make sure you get enough sleep and food for fuel. If you’re waking up earlier to run, also go to sleep earlier. Don’t let runs lead to worsened depression through fatigue.
Running can help your mental health. But there are also days when pushing yourself does more harm than good. Slowly you’ll be able to distinguish between them. Sometimes your body and mind need rest. There are depressed days when you should get behind your desk or in your running shoes and push. Those days you will be so glad that you did and feel proud. Other days require a gentler touch; they need a fuzzy blanket and Netflix show to binge. Both are okay because you are doing your best. It’s okay to try and push for the run, but what is essential is to recognise your limits. If you’re jogging and feeling miserable, then slow down, let yourself walk. Walking is also great exercise and a chance to get fresh air.
If your mind starts beating you up for it, imagine how you would advise a friend in the same situation. Would you tell them that they’re weak for not running and need just to try harder? I highly doubt that, and if this is the case, maybe you should address some things…
Treat yourself with the kindness that you give to others.
You have made the most significant step by merely wanting to go for a run. It is easier to let depression wash over you or numb you, but you are choosing to feel and to act. That is the hardest step; each step afterwards is far easier. Get yourself outside, out of that familiar environment, and let adrenaline do its job. Lower your expectation and treat whatever you manage as an accomplishment because it is. Well done, you!
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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