From the outside, it may seem like running is just putting one foot in front of the other over and over again. But from the inside, running can mean so much more than just movement. There are mental benefits of this sport that any runner, no matter their speed, can access. For those struggling with depression or anxiety, running can complement counseling and other resources for improved mental health.
The biological benefits of running are true for the body and the mind. Douglas (2018) wrote about all the different benefits of running for stress, anxiety, depression, balance, and other needs. Running requires systems, self-efficacy, and control over surroundings. Those practices then impact brain structure as repeated practices change a person’s lifestyle. For example, making time for a 5-mile run three times a week provides not only the benefits of the run, but also time and space away from stressful influences like work, social media, or the news. Focusing on those footsteps for an hour means rest, even while sweat is pouring down.
Another impact of running on mental health is the structure required to be a runner. During the winter months, going for a run is not as simple as pulling on a pair of shoes and locking the door. Depending on your climate, there may be layers from the cold, gear to protect from the rain, or watching for a break between storms. Form Daniloff (2012), the requirements of being a successful runner meant less time for his alcoholism. Getting drunk on Friday night meant not having the energy for a Saturday morning run. Connecting this to depression: while the mind may want to stay in bed all day, the commitment to running will help get out for a least a little while (and might benefit the rest of the day too).
Douglas (2018) highlighted that scientists don’t know why running seems to have different mental benefits from other sports: “You don’t hear about a swimmer’s high” (p. 109). For those who are able to run outside, a big part of the difference from other sports is that every run is unique. The same neighborhood loop will have different people to run past, different dogs on front porches, different flowers in bloom, etc. The experience of the run, being away from work and family routine, changes the runner’s perspective on what they left behind. Arnold (2019) began ultrarunning as a way to grieve the death of her father. Spending hours running up and down mountains required focus on the rocks ahead. She would return home physically exhausted, and mentally at peace thanks to a completed journey.
A final benefit of running for mental health is the purpose that is available in running. The goals might be long-term, such as a marathon finish time, or small, like getting around the block without walking. No matter what, each run moves forward toward a purpose that only you, the runner, get to identify and pursue. Unlike work or family, no one else gets to decide what your running goals are. No one else can say what should be important to you. Daniloff used running to overcome addiction and atone for past actions. Arnold needed to grieve and to find her place in the world. Douglas (2019) needed a way to escape depression and to say “yes” to the moment. If they won or lost in those goals, no one else gets to say.
Mental health is a life long journey, and so is running. There are times when the road ahead pitches up into the clouds, with no relief in sight. When walking is the only way forward. And that is okay. There will be other times when a smooth path is rolling ahead, and strong legs are ready to run until sunset. And that is great. No matter the situation, the journey continues.