It was running or Zumba,” says James Duncan of Montreal (not his real name), when asked why he started running. Back in 2018, when he first experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety, a friend suggested he take up a new activity. He was attracted to running as an individual sport without too much pressure: “No one expects me to win, so it seemed like a good option,” he says. But Duncan quickly discovered he could do more than he thought, so he registered for his first 5k race. “It gave me a sense of achievement, some sort of purpose,” he says. “It forced me to get up on days when I just wanted to stay in bed.”
Cut to June 2020, when Duncan proudly ran his first unofficial (and entirely unplanned) half-marathon – in the middle of the night. Getting up at 3:30 a.m. after a bout of insomnia, he went out for a quick run to watch the sunrise over the St. Lawrence River and had his first runner’s high: “It just felt good,” he says. “So I kept running.”
Is runner’s high what kept him running over the past two years? Duncan is clear: “To be honest, that’s only ever happened to me once. Running gives me a way to stop thinking about everything else for a while. When I run, I just focus on my breathing. It’s almost like meditation. And the social connections I got from being part of a running group also really helped me.”
Although thousands of people have taken up running for the first time during the pandemic, COVID has put a damper on group running, so the mental-health boost from socializing with other runners has been absent for most people over the past year. This has given rise to a particularly COVID-specific type of mental distress: loneliness. A recent Angus Reid survey found that almost a third of Canadians report suffering from loneliness and social isolation – and this figure rose 10 percent between October 2019 and October 2020. (Those reporting that they had “a good social life” dropped from 55 percent to 33 percent during the same period – and there are probably a fair number of runners among those numbers.)
With the prospect of a gradual return to normality thanks to vaccination, runners are tentatively signing up for races (where they can find them) and reconnecting with their groups, while solo runners whose motivation to train never flagged are cheered by the approach of spring. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the many mental health benefits of running and exercise, and that has never been truer than now.
But running obviously isn’t a guarantee against anxiety, depression, or loneliness. Runners of all levels struggle with mental health issues, while also experiencing running as a mood-booster, at least some of the time. Elite athletes like Canadian ultrarunner Rob Krar, U.S. runners Alexi Pappas, Amelia Boone, and Molly Seidel have shared their experiences with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and eating disorders in an effort to reduce stigma, and their candor has led to the recognition of the need for dedicated support. And while mental performance coaches have for decades helped pro athletes deal with negative mental habits that impede performance, there’s a difference between mental performance and mental health; psychotherapists are only recently becoming an essential part of the team as well. This was brilliantly demonstrated in April last year as Canadian sports groups and associations united to create a dedicated mental health task force to support athletes after the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. All of which raises the question: if elite professionals, who spend a large portion of their days training, are experiencing anxiety and depression, is exercise really as beneficial for mental health as we thought?
The relationship between running and mental health is both subtle and complex. Multiple studies have demonstrated the crucial role of exercise in well-being. Sports psychology expert, Olympian, and Dean of the University of Calgary’s faculty of kinesiology, Penny Werthner, says, “Movement is critical for both mental and physical health. There are physiological and neurological changes that occur when we move when we run and become fitter.” Achieving running milestones (which, depending on the individual, may mean anything from simply getting out the door to setting a new marathon PB) can boost confidence and motivation, foster a sense of accomplishment and improve self-esteem – all of which boost mental health. But it’s only part of the picture: “I would argue that exercise and movement can always help,” says Werthner, “and it would be wise to incorporate them into a treatment plan, along with other treatments, such as cognitive behavior therapy.”
If you’re a new runner who’s embraced the sport because you’ve heard of its widely touted mental health benefits, it may not be quite that simple. It may take time to build up the fitness that will allow you to reap any significant mental health benefit. (One study found that running at a moderate pace for 30 minutes produces a much higher increase in the neurotransmitters known as endocannabinoids, which researchers believe may be more responsible for running’s mood-boosting properties than endorphins, than either walking or running at maximum intensity – and it may take some time for a non-runner to be able to run continuously for 30 minutes.) Obviously, the risk for new runners is taking on too much too soon, which is likely to deprive them of any mental health benefit they might have derived from running because they are sidelined with an injury. Werthner suggests reaching out to a trainer or coach to get started in a way that’s appropriate to your fitness level and goals.
Another pitfall for new runners is that running can very easily become a chore, adding nothing to one’s mental health (and possibly compromising it). For running to make you happy, it should be carefree and liberating (as it is for Duncan). It doesn’t mean having to run a marathon – by all means, start training for a marathon if all of the following are true: you’re healthy, that goal excites you and you have support for it from the people in your life whom it may impact. Marathon training and recovery are time-consuming. Most plans recommend starting with some 5k, 10k, and half-marathon races to build a base of fitness, which generally means putting off marathon training until you’ve been running for at least six months to a year. Don’t compare yourself to others you see on social media, posting about their running accomplishments, and remember that there are no shortcuts to athletic greatness – elite athletes have years of training (and plenty of failures) behind them.
Whether you start with a few minutes of running and walking or a more ambitious regimen, check in with yourself regularly. “The best gift you can give yourself is to be aware of your own needs,” says Kim Dawson, mental performance consultant and professor at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University.
Experienced runners who decide to take on a new running goal may also be at risk of biting off more than they can chew, says Dawson, who suggests runners think carefully about the possible mental health implications of a new training plan: “Be aware of what you are sacrificing,” she says. “Choose a running program that fits your lifestyle and allows for a healthy amount of training, while giving you room for growth in other areas of your life, such as your professional development, social connections, and emotional well-being.” While often challenging, running should still be fun, at least most of the time. Regularly ask yourself whether you still look forward to getting out for a run. If not, it may be time to take the intensity down a notch or find a challenge more suited to your current state of mind.
Healing an injury can be a long, emotionally difficult process that sometimes involves giving up short-term goals, such as a much-anticipated race. That is likely to have an impact on your mental health, at least in the short term. The pandemic certainly hasn’t made dealing with injury easier. Being forced to take a break from a much-enjoyed activity is hard enough; doing it without the mood-boosting brain chemicals provided by alternative forms of exercise at facilities that aren’t accessible during lockdown can make recovery that much more difficult. Once again, Dawson suggests focusing on the other areas of your life that bring you joy. It also helps to seek out a supportive friend, or possibly a mental health professional, with whom to talk about the situation.
Finding balance may be a particular challenge for pro runners, for whom training is the biggest part of their daily life. Canadian half-marathon record holder Andrea Seccafien is from Guelph, Ont. but lives and trains in Melbourne, Australia. For Seccafien, feelings of isolation during the first lockdown in 2020, when she couldn’t work out with her teammates and she was a long way from home, were compounded by anxiety about the virus. That impacted her performance, which led to further anxiety, which led to the decision to take a month-long break from the sport last May. “I so badly wanted this to be a physical problem,” Seccafien told Canadian Running in January 2021, adding that she was prepared to deal with an iron or thyroid deficiency. But healing a mental health injury is no different than healing a running injury, and the solution usually isn’t more running, but it's opposite – rest. (And treatment by a trusted health professional.)
Alexi Pappas, who was raised in the U.S. but hopes to run for Greece at the Tokyo Olympics, has a similar story, which she tells in her recent book, Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas. Pappas’s mental health took a nosedive after the 2016 Olympics, where she competed in the 10,000m, setting a new national record for Greece. Instead of taking a well-deserved and much-needed vacation before setting new goals for the next Olympic cycle, she felt compelled to continue training. And after getting a distribution deal for her first film, Tracktown, she felt pressure to produce another film. There were also deeper psychological issues having to do with her mother’s death by suicide when Pappas was a young child, and she spiraled into insomnia and depression. It was a year before her father finally persuaded her to seek treatment, which was ultimately effective.
Professional athletes have the added pressure of having their performance tied to their livelihood, but recreational runners are not immune to overdoing it to the point of burnout. “The key,” says Dawson, “is to maintain a holistic identity. And this is valid for everyone, professional athlete or not. You are a person first, who happens to run.” It’s important to keep developing other areas of your life, which may include time with family, building a career, or pursuing another hobby that you’re passionate about.
Duncan, for his part, still runs four to five times a week and regularly attends therapy sessions. “It’s not a magic pill,” he says of running. “You have to find out what works for you. But it’s definitely been an adventure. You never know where you’re going to end up.” He smiles. “Could be on a riverbank, watching the sunrise at 6 a.m. after running 21 kilometers.”