An athlete running along a road

Why do we run? An exploration of running and mental health

In Health and wellbeing by Alison Harvey

You chat to a runner during a social run, park run or at a race, or even these days through social media channels, and ask them why did they start running. For everyone of us ‘runner types’ you will find a slightly different story and we often find that the reason we are still running years later is unrelated to the reason we initially started running. Why did you start your running journey and what brings you to this particular journey of training for a half marathon?

As a coach I meet so many runners, and I truly love listening to them talk about their journey into running. Many runners started running because they discovered they were good or enjoyed running at school, or watched their parents run and race and decided to give it a go themselves. Others choose to try running to lose weight and maintain weight. These runners gain a great benefit of running, the post run euphoria and feeling of wellbeing. For those runners that started their journeys after addiction, depression or other mental health, the result of their run however short is the same. That feeling that all is OK with the world unites these varied groups of runners and creates a community feel.

The benefits of running for mental health are well documented. Studies1, 2 have proven that running releases chemical enzymes from your muscles that counteract one of the chemicals linked with stress, depression and mental health.

After running, many of us often feel what is known as a runner’s high. Research has proven that running increases the production of endocannabinoids (a group of neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry signals between brain cells, which affect mood, appetite, pain and memory) and endorphins that are produced naturally in the brain during a run. This might be why we feel that running makes us feel happy and often reduces our pain thresholds too. Runners often run straight after work to relieve the stress of the day and help them to relax in the evening.

These endorphins also help to clear our minds and help us to concentrate. This is why we are often able to focus on work if we’ve run over our lunch breaks at work or first thing in the morning. I’m afraid to see this feeling does dissipate with duration though (ultra runners are not known for their clarity of thinking during a 100 mile ultra marathon, for example!).

Let’s not forget that running does create its own stresses; where to go running, the worry of an interval session, injury woes and of course for those with severe depression, the simple task of putting a foot out of the door to go for a run is often overwhelming. A few ideas to overcome this:

1) Arrange to run with others, then you can’t let them down by not turning up.

2) Join a running club for inspiration, making new friends and motivation to getting out the door.

3) Find a training plan that works for you and your life and doesn’t create extra stress.

4) If the planned session is causing anxiety then just go out for an easy run and see how you feel once you start. I often find that I start to feel great once I’ve actually started running.

5) Don’t skip the strength and conditioning! These sessions can also help with general well-being, but they also help to reduce that all important injury risk.

Author bio

Michelle Maxwell is an experienced running coach with a running and triathlon coaching business she runs with her triathlon-obsessed husband Chris. They live in beautiful Wiltshire, with their three children (twin boys Harry and Josh, and daughter Sophie). Michelle loves ultra running, running fast on the roads, adores the coast path and mountains, and thrives on helping other achieve their goals. Follow her on Instagram @ultrarunning mummaxwell @maxwellcoachingendurance

1. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2016 May 15;310(10):C836-40