There are so many reasons I go for a run. I might be training for an event and have a planned run to get me that much closer to my goal. Occasionally I just feel slothful and low energy and I head out for a run just to get myself moving. But mainly, these days, while I’m not training for anything in particular, I’ve realized running has become like therapy for me.
Every time I’ve had something weighing on my mind recently, or anytime something tragic takes place and feels overwhelming to think about, I’ve made time to get outside and just run. I joked around with a friend that I needed to get one of those shirts that reads, ‘Running is Cheaper Than Therapy,’ and she didn’t understand what I was talking about. How, she wanted to know, could something that was hard and physical and made you sweaty and out of breath and sore, possibly make you feel better? My friend is not a runner and it’s a bummer that the image of running among many people who don’t is that it’s all kind of a giant suckfest. (And yes, it does suck sometimes, but that’s what makes the great runs great, right?)
So, why is running therapeutic?
First and foremost, running is precious alone time. This has become even more important to me now I’m a parent, to have a little time of not being mama for an hour, just me and my breathing and stride. But I remember early morning runs in Prospect Park back in my pre-kids days, enjoying the peace and early morning stillness before my day began. While I love to run with friends, or race in a crowd, I would never give up my solo running.
Being in Nature
I know there are diehard treadmill runners out there and I would choose a treadmill over no run at all, for sure. But getting time outside is so important for your mental health. Getting fresh air and being in nature (yes, even in a city park) can chill you out and make you happy to be filling your lungs with air.
Maybe you’ve heard people say they come up with their best ideas, or solutions to problems, when they’re out on a run. Why does this work? It’s like being in the shower – it’s a time and place when all you can really do is switch off and zone out. And when your mind is in that kind of daydreaming, wandering state, that’s when the lightbulb moments can happen. Even when I’m worrying about something, or something feels all-consuming to me, when I head out running, it’s not like I’m thinking about it constantly. The physical distraction of running, of checking in with my body, controlling my breath, gauging my pace, helps keep my mind somewhat still. And even when mulling something over in your head, it’s in a more meditative way than if you were, for example, to call a friend and talk it through. And sometimes I come back and realize I’ve come up with a solution to an issue, and sometimes I come back and the issue is still unresolved. But either way, the run makes me feel better and calmer and more accepting.
The Physical Side
Obviously the physical act of running is a big part of why running is like therapy. Running gets your blood flowing, makes your heart pump harder and releases hormones to make you feel good. Exercise like running triggers the reward pathways in your brain, which make you more likely to return to run again and again, so you can benefit from the feeling of reward. There is also mounting evidence that exercise like running can have the same positive impact on a person with depression, as talk therapy or depression medications would.
Being Kind to Yourself
Not all of the feel-good rush of finishing a run is from reward pathways and blood flow. It’s also knowing you’re taking care of yourself, making time for you and your health. It’s the sense of accomplishment for getting out and getting sweaty. You don’t regret your run because even when they suck (and we know they can suck royally at times), you still know you’re stronger and fitter for having gone out and run.
Why do you run? Is it like therapy for you?