Running is a great way to keep yourself physically healthy, but did you know there are also significant mental health benefits as well? Running regularly can boost your mood, help you manage stress, and help you be more present at home and at work.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the mental health benefits that come from running and some strategies that you can adopt to keep your mental health in top shape.
The news isn’t all good, running can also take a toll if you’re not careful. We’ll also look at some of the pitfalls to avoid, in case you start taking running too seriously.
Running keeps your brain healthy. All exercise releases endorphins, and many runners feel the aftereffects of running for hours afterward, if not all day long. After a stressful day, going for a run can change your whole perspective and lift your mood. This is because endorphins are sometimes referred to as “natural pain killers”. They are hormones that are produced in your body and released through activities like exercise. They also get released from things like laughter, listening to music, and other pleasurable activities. They’ve come to be known as “feel-good hormones”. Running releases endorphins, which means there are immediate positive effects on how you are feeling.
Running has been shown to increase serotonin levels in your body. Serotonin is a chemical produced in and for your brain that helps regulate your mood and happiness. Many anti-depressant medications work towards regulating your serotonin levels, with different doses prescribed to different people in order to help increase the serotonin that is made or absorbed in your body. If running produces the same chemical, it can be a natural anti-depressant!
Endorphin release and serotonin production are the scientific details as to how running can improve your mental health and overall mood. There is also the benefit of clearing your brain that happens when you go for a run. Engaging in a complex physical activity like running can help you clear your head after a long day. Or it can help prepare you to get ready for a difficult day or event.
Running Controls Anxiety
Running is a great way to combat the symptoms of anxiety. Let’s look at a list of some of the most common symptoms:
- Tightness or tension in your muscles
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Feeling restless, both physically and mentally
- Feeling like you’re in danger even though you’re not
- Difficulty concentrating or completing basic tasks
All these symptoms are easily attacked with a good run! Going for a run will have the obvious effect on working your muscles, you’ll get rid of a lot of built-up energy and that release will automatically make you feel better. Muscle soreness may occur from using your muscles to run, but this is a different thing than the tension people feel as a symptom of anxiety. That symptom can sometimes be unbearable, but muscle soreness as an aftereffect of running is easier dealt with by stretching and resting.
Running will definitely help you get a good night’s sleep if that is something you struggle with. Insomnia is a classic sign of anxiety, so adding running to your daily activities is a great way to use up excess energy and help prepare yourself for a solid night of slumber.
Additionally, by keeping your body in shape, you’ll be able to work against the other symptoms listed. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and running is a great way to achieve that. Feelings of restlessness or generalized anxiety that get in the way of your daily life are often alleviated with the freshness of mind that comes from enjoying a run.
Running Gives You an Increased Sense of Community
Runners love helping each other out. While running is an individual activity by definition, the community of runners is huge and very supportive. Do some research in your community to find the running clubs, they are everywhere! If you live in a big city, you can usually find running clubs that are specific to different types of people: LGBT groups, groups for women, groups that are more social-based for walkers/joggers are all examples of groups that can be found. A running club is a great way to meet other runners that share your interests.
If there are no running clubs in your area, think about starting one. Try to find a friend or two to run with – while many runs happen solo, meeting up with a friend to get a few miles in is a great way to keep in touch that doesn’t involve meeting at a bar or going out to eat.
Signing up for races is also a great way to get involved in the running community. Many races are put on to support charitable causes, so you can get the mental health boost of running a race, added with the boost from working towards a good cause. Having a race on the calendar as a goal to work towards can bring all sorts of mental health benefits. Having something to look forward to naturally causes us to change our outlook.
Running Gets You Outdoors
You won’t be able to do all your runs outside. Sometimes the weather will be too impossible, and you’ll have to do your workout on the treadmill. But if the weather is bearable, try to do as many of your runs as you can outdoors. Getting outside has a great impact on your mental outlook. Even if you live in a purely urban environment, being outside can cheer you up. Fresh air is a natural way to perk up your mood.
Running also gives you some time to yourself. If you head outside for a run, you can dedicate an hour (or however long a run is for you) to spend some quality time with yourself. It is a great way to leave your workday behind, and also to let your friends and family know that your time spent running is your sacred time to spend alone. Once you’re back home there will be plenty of time to hang out with everyone else!
Running Helps Build Your Confidence
Running is a great sport for building your confidence. Many people are intimidated at first because they think running is something that they’ve never been able to do. So many runners tell the story of how they felt this way, but once they got into the activity, their entire perspective changed. Anyone who runs is a runner!
Once you get started in the activity, you’ll get a huge confidence boost from the inevitable improvements you’ll start seeing. Your first few runs may only be a mile or two long. In no time, you’ll be able to hit three miles without needing to take a break. It is a fantastic activity for adding on small, incremental improvements.
You also get a confidence boost from achieving your goals. Once you cross the finish line of a race that you’ve been training for, you’ll feel like you can conquer the world! That is a great way to get ahead of any voices in your head telling you you’re not good enough, no matter the occasion. The important thing about this confidence boost is that you need to carry it with you into the rest of your life as well. If you’re nervous about giving a presentation at work, just remember what you achieved when you set out to train for that race. That kind of dedication and effort will make your presentation seem like a walk in the park!
Helps you Focus on Goals and Making Improvements
Working towards a goal is a great way to focus your efforts. The best part about running is that any runner can set a goal for themselves, it isn’t dependent on anyone else telling you what your goals need to be.
Very few runners exist at the elite level, meaning the type of runner that wins races. Most runners are amateurs, and we use running as a way to improve our own skillset. While coming in fast at a race is a good thing, your main competition will only ever be yourself. That’s why the concept of a Personal Record “PR” is so important to runners. We don’t need to compare ourselves to the other runners on a course, we are running to see if we can improve on the fastest time we’ve already set for ourselves.
That’s what makes running unique for goal setting. You are in control of setting your own goals. Maybe your goal is to run a full marathon. Maybe you want to run a marathon in less than five hours. Maybe you just want to run three miles without stopping. Whatever your goal, you get to decide what it is, and you get to work towards accomplishing it on your own time. That can be a very liberating feeling for many people, and a great way to give yourself some mental support.
When setting these goals, it is important to ensure they are realistic. Work through goals in small chunks. First try to finish a 5k, then try to shave a minute or two off your time. If you set an unrealistic goal, it could backfire on you when it doesn’t happen.
Pitfalls to Avoid
There are some aspects of running that can have a negative effect on your mental health, if you’re not careful. We wanted to include these just for awareness, because while we clearly think that running is great for your mental health, we also want to make sure we are giving you all the necessary information. Consider these things when thinking about running as a way to improve your mental health:
- Obsession over a Training Plan: If you are training for a big race like a marathon, it can be easy to get overly obsessive about the training plan you’re working on. Most training plans will have three or four runs every week, with distances to run each day. Missing a run, or cutting a run short, can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction or anxiety. The way to combat this is to accept the miss and move on. Don’t try to make it up on your next run by adding miles or running harder.
- Missing a Goal: If you work towards a specific goal, such as running a 5k in less than 30 minutes, you risk being disappointed if you don’t hit the mark. One way to avoid that feeling is to look at any miss as an opportunity. If you come in at 33 minutes, then your training will switch to shaving one minute off your regular mile. Small, manageable chunks of activities are how to approach your training and your goals. It is also important to set realistic goals. Don’t try to run a Sub-3 marathon if you’ve never run a Sub-4! You need to set goals that you know are achievable, otherwise you’ll be setting yourself up for more disappointment.
- Body Image Issues: Running definitely keeps you fit, but it is still possible to develop body image issues. This is especially true if you are running hard every day. It can be easy to think that your physical appearance should change more rapidly than what you are seeing. Just remember that running is more about how you feel on the inside than how you look on the outside.
We hope this list helps express the different ways in which running can be beneficial to your mental health. As with any activity, moderation is key. Running is one tool that can be used to help improve your mental health, but it shouldn’t be the only tool. And of course, if you are experiencing feelings that are hard to manage, please reach out to a healthcare professional in your area to get help. Mental health resources are available so please make use of them!