The mental health benefits of running

Published on
February 8, 2023
In recent years, the importance of mental health, as well as physical health, has been thrown into sharp relief...

How running can support your wellbeing

In recent years, the importance of mental health, as well as physical health, has been thrown into sharp relief – and one bright light that continues to guide people through testing times is running.

Ask any runner why they do the sport and the answer will often be related to their mental health, whether they realise it or not. Whether it's for ‘me time’, ‘headspace’ or simply to ‘blow away the cobwebs’, running – and regular aerobic exercise in general – reaps many rewards when it comes to our mental wellbeing.

And the experts agree! The mental health of our participants, supporters and partners is a priority for us, which is why we've taken a closer look at the science behind some of the most commonly-cited mental health benefits of running and asked those in the know for their tips...

Get a natural high

After and during exercise our bodies release endorphins and endocannabinoids, both of which have long been associated with the well-known concept of ‘runner’s high’.

Researchers found that there was indeed a correlation between the ‘endogenous opioids’ the brain releases after sustained physical exercise and a perceived euphoric state in runners. This is great – but what does it mean for the everyday runner? It suggests that if you’re feeling down, aerobic exercise (like running) could help raise your spirits and reenergise you, even if you don’t quite achieve full-on euphoria!

Boost your self-esteem

We spoke to wellbeing and performance specialist Chevy Rough about how exercise can make you feel better about yourself.

“Training for a marathon – or any running event – can do wonders for your confidence, across all aspects of your life. Quickly, you find yourself wondering what else you could do if you put your mind and body to it. Along the way, of course, you may question your ability – for example, when an unfinished training run or injury knocks your self-esteem. No-one deserves to feel this way.

“To help your confidence, remind yourself there’s rarely a perfect training cycle. It’s OK to have off days, down days and duvet days. A simple way to boost confidence is to learn to congratulate yourself for each small step you take every day: for getting out of bed; for getting out the door; for doing your warm-up. These small moments will help your body release feel-good chemicals that fuel the positive psychology to keep going.”

Fight anxiety

Many people view running as a perfect opportunity to put their worries to one side and simply focus on the here and now – whether that's the path their pounding, the song that's playing or the fresh air they're breathing.

But beyond this, evidence supports the idea that physical activity can help prevent anxiety from emerging – and that’s regardless of demographics such as age, education or income. So why not try 30 to 45 minutes of being present in the moment when you're out for your next run? It may help interrupt your flow of thoughts so you can see things from a different perspective.

Set new goals

While setting goals is a great way to help you achieve your running dreams, it's important to stay flexible and positive as you progress through your training journey.

As Chevy says: “It’s vital to remember that any number of variables could impact your marathon training or general running over the coming months. How will your body respond to an increase in mileage? How will the stress of work in week eight impact your long run? How will the kids getting colds in week 10 affect your motivation? And so on.

“Nothing in life is fixed, so it’s essential you realise that the goal you set yourself today may have to change as new variables show up in your life. It’s not a case of not setting goals, but of not putting all your joy into a black or white outcome. Consider aligning your success with the effort you put in, rather than the fixed outcome you hope to have.”

Improve your sleep

It’s a rather cruel paradox in life that the more exhausted we feel (both physically and emotionally), the less likely it seems we’re able to get a good night’s sleep. If worries about a hectic work schedule, family life or even the wider world mean you’re not getting as much shut-eye as you’d like, you may want to try running.

A US study found that moderate aerobic exercise may increase your production of the night-time hormone melatonin, which regulates your internal body clock and, as a result, positively impacts sleep quality. In fact, the study goes on to suggest that individuals with sleep problems should consider using exercise as a way to improve aspects of their sleep.

Try it for yourself!

While our findings might not surprise anyone who’s ever felt on cloud nine after returning from a wet, windy winter run they had to drag themselves out to do, we hope you’ll agree it’s great to see how running really does make a positive difference to our mental health.

Still don’t believe us? Then give running a go and see where it takes you!

How to seek help

While running can be a powerful mood-enhancer, please note that it is not a replacement for professionally prescribed therapy or other treatment for severe mental health disorders. Running is a tool that anyone can use to help combat the negative feelings that we all experience at different levels at different times in our lives.

If you feel you are struggling with your mental health in any way and would like to seek help, please contact the mental health charity Mind – the team can then provide the information, advice and support that’s right for you.

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