Recent events in France remind us all how stained the world is and how difficult life will be now for people directly affected by such atrocities. Lives never the same again, but because of the way the world is connected these days, the ripple effect of such emotion cascades quickly, spreading around the world in no time at all. It’s hard not to be affected, but we just get on with our lives, and we store the images and sounds in the part of the brain, filed under ‘dark stuff’ and move forward. Perhaps we change our Facebook image in disgust, and then we get about our business.
As we go about our daily lives though, we sometimes unwittingly become stressed over seemingly trivial things, never really being able to pinpoint what it is that bothers us, or if so, why. Is that in part due to an accumulation of negative imagery overloading our senses? It’s just part of life, we shrug the shoulders, say something like, “I’m ok”, and get on. But what does any of this have to do with running?
You often hear people say things like “You will never feel worse after a run” and “Go for a run to clear your mind”, but surely that begs the question of whether running is good for your mind, and if so what is the link between running and state of mind or mood. Much has also been written about the benefits of exercise and specifically running for health and physical wellbeing, but the links between mental health and running are harder to prove and also harder to find unequivocal empirical evidence on. Perhaps the complex nature of mental health and also the taboos that surround it do nothing to assist that. A quick glance at the internet will give you an idea that running is good for your mood, but how and to what extent? Perhaps, just as the mind is such a complex personal space unique to each and every one of us, could the possible ways that running is good for the mind therefore be as equally unique and diverse at the same time?
What I know is that after I run, I tend to feel mentally refreshed. I was once asked what I think about whilst out running on long runs, and the answer is everything and nothing. How can that be? The run starts with a thought process, which leads to another thought, and so on, all of them colliding into one another, until they sort of merge together in a thought-soup. Sometimes there are eureka moments but mostly not, but I think that this jumbling of thoughts and ideas is a way of distancing ourselves from reality for the duration of the run, like the emptying of a bath: everything that was stored is released. Ask someone after a solo run what they thought about…it’s hard to pinpoint something and provide an answer, everything and nothing. This is potentially why we feel ‘refreshed’ after a run, by allowing all the stored thoughts to bounce about in our mind until they slowly release their energy and become spent. Physically drained, mentally restored.
This much is true for solo running, but even group running can be beneficial too. You go out on a long run with a few like-minded people and immerse in chit-chat and jibber-jabber and the miles fly by. It’s such a massive distraction from reality and this distancing from reality, or escapism, can provide valuable breathing space for some, which in itself can help to promote a calmer mental state.
There are many scientifically proven things that happen to our bodies that influence our mood, such as the release of endorphins, which lead to what is described as ‘Runners’ High’. Endorphins are painkillers produced in response to physical discomfort, according to Matthew Hill, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Hotchkiss Brain Institute. That doesn’t mean that you need to be in pain from running to feel the effects of endorphins, a ‘challenging’ run will produce this effect according to his research. What effect does the release of these endorphins play on our state of mind then after a run? The effects linger for a while and this too can explain why a ‘mood lift’ can be felt. This weekend I asked someone after the Dirt Half how they felt just after finishing….’I feel great’ was the answer, despite the obvious physical discomfort.
Mental illness notwithstanding, our mental ‘wellbeing’ is not something that we really think about. It’s like sitting in a room where the ambient temperature is perfect for us. We have no reason to think about it because we are neither too hot, nor too cold. Same goes for how we feel, we never stop to say….oh, I feel average today, only when our mood tips the scales at one end or the other do we notice. However does that mean that running can only benefit those under some sort of mental strain? I would disagree.
Whilst it may be difficult to describe why or how running is good for our mood, and certainly more troublesome to categorically prove that, what I do know, is that running nearly always helps me feel mentally restored, whether I thought I needed it or not.