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  • Writer's pictureThomas Alexander

Running Towards Anxiety

Running is so versatile as a form of exercise that it gives me two completely opposite abilities, first; is a lot of time to think, and second; the ability not to think at all. I was turning this over in my mind yesterday whilst I was in a particularly contemplative mood and I was curious to see how commonly why 'I' run is shared by others.

I tend to look at things from a sociological perspective and none of my opinions are based on science, just personal experience. Moves to reduce the stigma around mental health are brilliant in encouraging people to seek help when they need it and I hope that practitioners are also using exercise as a potential treatment these days. As most of us have, I have experienced some (but not many thankfully) particularly difficult times in life, but outside those and in terms of a business as usual way of operating, I randomly experience periods of heightened anxiety, sometimes work related but often without identifiable cause.

It's important to me, in perspective, to remember that anxiety or feeling depressed can be completely normal and is our bodies' clever response to external factors. Think caveman with a sabre toothed tiger outside the cave... anxious times right? So where we can, the important thing is recognising and acknowledging how we feel, and knowing the best way to respond to those feelings in order to move back into a happier and calmer state of mind. The normalisation of experiencing emotions has been hugely beneficial to my ability to manage them. So this is where exercise has become my drug of choice, free, with the dose easily adapted to the situation, and always available. That's probably a very naïve and simplistic response to complex modern lives, but on the flip side, sometimes there are simple answers in life (funnily enough, the simple answers don't often make anyone any money).

I ran, no pun intended, a quick poll on Instagram yesterday as I was curious about motivating factors for other runners, and this is the extent of my global scientific research😉 . Of course mental health isn't a consideration in every run or when following a plan but as underlying motivation:

In terms of response, a whopping 87% of people said that mental health is part of their motivation behind exercising either fully or in part which I think is great in that so many need/recognise and use exercise for more than just the physical benefits!

- physical health 7%

- mental health 15%

- both 72%

- just for fun 6%

Why I called this post running TOWARDS anxiety is because for me, since I have started to acknowledge how I'm feeling, particularly on days that are not as great as others, then I am in a much better position to manage and shift those emotions into a positive mindset. I have tried to normalise talking about how I'm feeling in the same way that we say we're having a great day, or a busy day, and it's not much harder to say, 'I'm feeling really anxious today but I'm going to go for a run later'. There's certainly no desire to seek sympathy but it's amazing how supportive people are and how they will also be more open in return if we allow ourselves to be a little bit vulnerable and honest - I mean, who hasn't said that they were, 'good', when asked - when you've been anything but! I've also noticed that the more I say I'm good - when I'm not - the less other people open up in return so it works both ways and being able to support others in return makes you feel better.. win/win!

Running is such an adaptable sport (therapy) because the intensity of any session can be adjusted by feel at an instant or mid-run. We all know the dread of waking up early for a cold early run, but we also know the feeling when we're done, and if we could bottle that we would be very rich! We've all heard about serotonin and the chemical effects of running on our brains but I think there's more to that and the actual physical effort works as a method of cleansing. I probably bore people to death with updates about runs that I'm going to do or just did, but it's just a way of holding myself accountable and following through. It's so much easier to bail on a session when we're tired, grumpy, or after a long day if no one knows we were going to do it but because I'm stubborn, if I put it out there that I'm doing something, it will get done.

I like to use intervals or tempo runs when I really want to zone out and not think at all, and sometimes longer runs are great to process and come up with options - particularly for me if it's work related - being out of the office with fresh air is much better for finding solutions! Based on some recommendations from friends I have started listening to podcasts on longer runs. I still prefer music for intervals or anything more up-tempo but when you want to zone out, podcasts are a great way of passing time without thinking about anything so these have become a staple of my longer runs.

Podcasts when running

Most of the podcasts I listen to are music related but a couple of the more running related options which I find perfect for longer runs are:
The Rich Roll Podcast

For those that haven't tried podcasts before while running, I highly recommend it. The combination of the physical and mental distraction definitely makes finding that 'happy place' easier for me and also melts away the miles on longer runs during which I would find myself constantly searching for the right music. Another benefit is being able to not worry about pace and to sit at those slower speeds as sometimes I find it difficult to not get carried away by the rhythm of music and end up faster than planned when reviewing my runs afterwards. So now I save music for my shorter or more intense runs, there's no way I could do these without music! I'm definitely one of those people that will go back for the headphones if I forget them - although it's a good incentive to run smoother so that I don't have to listen to my own heavy breathing and footsteps. Music is also great for mental health so it's yet another brilliant combination along with the fresh air and physical exertion.

If anyone else has any other feedback on how tunning helps their overall wellbeing or mental health, be it races or training, please let me know as I love incorporating new ideas and suggestions into how I structure my weeks.

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