The Easiest Way to Improve Your Running? Focus on Mental Health.

This article originally appeared on Womens Running

It may seem obvious that running is good for mental health. A quick Google search on the topic returns hundreds of pages of personal anecdotes and compelling science. But the truth is far more nuanced than that. In fact, the interconnectedness between running and mental health is fairly complicated.

Mental health isn't an on-off switch that you only need to worry about once it's been flipped. Mental health, like physical health, is better conceptualized as existing on a spectrum with a dial moving you back and forth between the thriving and unwell ends of the continuum. Any number of factors inside and outside of your control can turn the dial in either direction, and where a runner finds themselves on the spectrum at any given moment can have big implications for their running.

'Take Time for Yourself, Get Out There, Stay Consistent'

Grayson Murphy, two-time Mountain Worlds Champion, reminds us, "80 percent of your training and success is mental, especially if you are in ultras. If you aren't going in with a good mental state then you aren't going to perform well. The times I have been in my best mental state is when I have performed best. It is worth it." When a runner's mental health is thriving, their performance benefits, too.

At the same time, athletes who find themselves moving toward the unwell end of the mental health spectrum may see negative impacts to training, performance, and recovery. Many common mental health conditions include physical symptoms such as low energy, loss of motivation, and sleep disruptions. Any of these can directly impact training.

This can be especially true with depression, where doing anything, even things that are known to elicit joy, feels like a daunting task. A runner may know, intellectually, that a run helps them feel better, but getting out there and doing it feels impossible.

Darcy Piceu, an ultrarunner with ten Hardrock 100 finishes who is also a licensed professional counselor, encourages runners who face low motivation to not get overwhelmed by overambitious training targets. Instead, she recommends they shoot for something small and manageable. "Aim for twenty minutes," she says. "You don't have to do your planned workout. Even if you end up walking. Take time for yourself, get out there, stay consistent."

Impacts of Running on Mental Health

Running is often considered an activity that moves individuals along the spectrum toward thriving, and that makes sense. There's compelling science and an abundance of anecdotal accounts supporting the positive link between running and mental health.

While the science about the mood boosting effects of endorphins or the stress-mitigating impacts of endocannabinoids and norepinephrine is convincing, most runners don't need to read research to know that running can be a tool to support their mental health. Runners naturally turn to exercise as a place to process emotions, think through problems, temporarily avoid overthinking, or just feel better. Moderate exercise is linked to reduced stress, improved sleep, and decreases in symptoms of depression, and anxiety.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five adults in the United States experience mental illness. Runners are not immune to this statistic. While running can help reduce symptoms and risk, runners are just as susceptible to the genetics, hormones, traumas, and losses that can both cause and exacerbate mental health conditions. Running supports mental health in the same way that eating well can support physical health, but consistent running can't itself prevent mental illness any more than eating well can prevent a broken arm.

In fact, it's possible that running can move someone toward the unwell end of the spectrum. While running can alleviate symptoms of some common mental health conditions, it may exacerbate others. "If someone has a history of panic disorder or eating disorders or dependency, running can actually make things worse," Piceu reminds us.

Even runners without a history of mental illness can experience physiological and psychological impacts from running or their relationship with it. Running is stress on the body, and anything that is stress on the body is also stress on the brain. The longer and harder the runs, the more the stress. A bit of stress is a good thing--in fact, stress is necessary for athletic development--but if that stress isn't met with adequate food and rest, runners can find themselves facing mental health challenges unique to athletes.

Conditions such as Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) have mental health impacts as a result of an imbalance between training stress and rest or fueling. The same factors that put a runner at risk for a physical injury--overtraining, under-fueling, inadequate resting--also put them at risk for a mental health injury.

Running can even impact us well after a run is over. Though not clinically defined, there are abundant anecdotes of "post-race blues." Piceu has experienced this marked change in mood following a big event, and has heard countless stories of others with similar experiences. "When you exhaust yourself at that level, it's impossible not to impact you," she says. "Physiologically. Hormonally. Psychologically. There's a crash that comes after the high and it hits in multiple ways."

In addition to the physical toll running takes on the body, a runner is also at risk for psychological stress related to the sport. Challenges such as feelings of inadequacy, environmental pressure, injury, fear of failure, poor body image, and identity have been linked to negative mental health in athletes. Any one of these topics can lead to unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for runners at every level of the sport.

Start with Self-Awareness

These complicated impacts and relationships can change over the course of a single training block or an entire running career. To make thoughtful and intentional decisions about training, a runner needs to develop self-awareness that allows them to honestly assess where they are on the mental health spectrum at any current point, and whether running is moving them in one direction or another.

To develop this self-awareness, Piceu encourages us to start from a place of curiosity. "Be genuinely curious about your relationship with running," she advises. "Ask hard questions. Pay attention to what your body feels before, during, and after runs. Does it just feel good in the moment, or does it still feel good later? You have to be curious."

With a lens of curiosity, there is an absence of judgment. There is no right or wrong answer; instead, it is just neutral information to inform the next step. Piceu speaks from both professional and personal experience. "When I finally got really curious about my own relationship with running, I realized it didn't have the power to do for me what I thought it could."

Murphy shared a similar experience. "I always heard that running was good for mental health. People say 'I run for my mental health.' It never occurred to me that the opposite could be true. But I learned it's easy to go in the other direction and for it to become unhealthy," she says.

Now Murphy pays close attention to the way running makes her feel and uses that self-awareness to make training choices. If she starts to run out of obligation instead of desire, Murphy makes an intentional change. "If I feel a shift, I take a step back," she says. "Maybe I cross-train. Maybe I take a rest day. I don't want to run out of compulsion, I just want to run for the joy of running."

There are lots of tools athletes can use to foster self-awareness, and most of them have the additional benefit of improving mental health. Piceu encourages all runners to engage in a stillness practice, like meditation or mindfulness. In addition to stillness, Murphy highlights the benefits of awareness and processing that come with simply putting thoughts into words.

"I go to therapy. I write things down, make lists, write in my journal, stay present with myself--it all helps." Murphy finds this practice so helpful that she developed her own training log and planner that is filled with tracking tools and journal prompts to help other runners cultivate their own self awareness.

The Role of a Coach in Mental Health

Murphy benefits from a history of coaches who prioritize mental health, including her current coach. She shares the insights she gains from her own self-awareness practices with him, which directly informs her training strategy. "My training log isn't just about my stats. We talk about my mental health and how I'm feeling about life in general. He asks about it, especially around harder times, or if I have a race coming up, or if I haven't mentioned it in a while."

While it may not be intuitive for coaches and athletes to talk about mental health, it's not possible to separate the athlete from their mental health. An athlete's ability to engage with training, manage training stress, and recover are all linked to their mental health.

Dr. Lara Pence, psychologist and founder of the Coaches Collective, a collaborative professional development group for coaches, reminds us that coaches should be familiar with mental health. "Humans have feelings, belief systems, and thought patterns that impact their capacity to follow through with training, adapt to training, and benefit from training," she says. "So while a coach may feel like an athlete's mental health is not their job, the minute they start asking their athlete to do anything they are signing up for supporting mental health along the way."

A coach has a lot of power to create a culture within their team and build relationships with their athletes. He or she can destigmatize mental health and makes it a comfortable topic of conversation. Pence encourages coaches to set the stage early in the process. "Make sure that your [athlete] onboarding asks some basic questions like: 'Have you ever struggled with depression, substance abuse, or eating disorders?' Ask if they are seeing a therapist and let them know that if the therapist ever wants to touch base with them, that's OK. Help create that wraparound approach." Right away, the coach should demonstrate that mental health is a part of training, not separate from it.

Pence reminds us that talking about feelings and caring about an athlete's mental health is different from diagnosing and providing therapy. "Don't be afraid of feelings. Not every depressed mood is depression. Not every anxious response is anxiety disorder. It's OK to have conversations," she says. Pence encourages coaches to have a strong referral list of trusted mental health professionals on hand, but also advises them to resist the urge to immediately refer out. "Sometimes, all an athlete needs is validation."

Expanding the Conversation

In 2019, the non-profit Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT) was founded to help provide access to mental health services and reduce the stigma around accessing services in the trail running community. Co-founder Tommy Byrne has observed stigma to be a primary barrier to runners accessing needed services. "In a culture where grit and grinding is glorified, it can feel like weakness to ask for help or admit you can't do something on your own," he says.

This is exacerbated by the belief that running alone is sufficient to meet mental health needs and is always a positive for mental health. "When we overemphasize the benefits of running, we promote the idea that running is the same thing as seeing a therapist or taking medication," Byrne argues. "The reality is that professional support is beneficial. You can't just rely on movement and community alone. Those things are helpful, and they should be a part of the puzzle, but it is OK to need more."

Byrne recommends incorporating a variety of tools and strategies for your mental health, even when you're feeling good. "Whether it's mindfulness, therapy, medication, a network of people outside of running--find what works for you. Spending time on your mental health is never a waste of time. It's the easiest way to improve your running."

We all have the power to influence the trail running community to be one that supports and celebrates caring for mental health. Normalize having easier days and harder days. Normalize needing therapy or medication. Normalize facing challenges and having doubts. Normalize feeling signs of burnout or post-race blues. Normalize needing more than running to take care of your mental health. You're not alone.

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