Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Power of Positive Self-Talk

Every winter, after the excitement of the holidays I hit a lull in my training. The early winter months, November and December, are great. The cool weather and even, gasp, snow are a welcome novelty. The first run in ankle deep powder is more like a frolic. I feel like a little kid as I bundle up with excitement to play in the snow. Come February, however, I’m over it. I’m tired of forcing out runs in the snow and ice, taking my life into my hands each time I try to cross an icy road. I’m tired of bundling up in everything I own and dealing with the cold and wind. Most of all I’m tired of the gray. Blah. I’d rather sit inside and bake cookies. Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects a half million people each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Interestingly, women are more likely than men to suffer from, possibly related to biological differences and sex/gender-role identity factors.1

SAD running - early winter

Enjoyable early winter running with friends.

So what causes SAD and why does it affect so many of us during the winter months? SAD is actually a mood disorder related to seasonal changes in sunlight. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but it’s thought to be linked to the shorter days of winter and less exposure to sunlight. Simply explained, sunlight can stimulate the hypothalamus and influence hormone production in the brain. In people who have SAD, the lack of sunlight affects the production of melatonin and serotonin, which are related to sleep, mood, and appetite. The lack of sunlight can also disrupt circadian rhythm, affecting the body’s internal clock and leading to low energy and depression2.

SAD and Running

So how does SAD affect running and training? Well the most obvious consequence is motivation to get out the door. When it’s dark and cold it’s hard to get excited to go for a run. Pair that with low energy and a depressed mood and it’s almost impossible to get in consistent training. Other symptoms of SAD include oversleeping, fatigue, carbohydrate craving, and weight gain. All of which can be negative during training. Herein the potential for a negative downward spiral exists: SAD leads to poor mood, fatigue, and low motivation, resulting in sub-par running performance, further affecting mood and motivation, and on and on… Not a good cycle to fall into.

Some of the treatments for SAD may include increasing the time spent outdoors during the day, bright light therapy, or even antidepressant drugs. However, not all of these treatments may be ideal, especially for an athlete. Other ways to combat SAD include getting outdoors, exercise, stress management, and good nutrition. Thus, running may be one of the best ways to prevent and treat symptoms of SAD. The biggest hurdle is just getting out the door…

Some ways to increase the joy of running over the winter months include changing up your route, running during the day, or running with a friend. If you run the same exact route everyday, this may be a great time to explore somewhere new. Obviously some areas or trails may not be an option, but I bet there are roads in your hometown you haven’t explored. Sometimes I literally run errands, like run to the post office or to the grocery store if I only need a few things. This gets me out of my normal running routine and gives me purpose for my run.

Seasonal Affective Disorder - winter running - friends

Out running with some friends … around Mount Hood. Photo: Ian Sharman

Also, if your day is somewhat flexible try to schedule your run midday when the sun is out. Go to work an hour earlier and run on your lunch break to take advantage of the warmer temps and sunshine. Another good way to increase the fun factor during winter runs is to be social. I’m way more likely to run if I have someone to meet. It’s much harder to back out even if it’s cold and dark outside. Running with someone also makes the time go by faster and it’s a great way to get to know someone better. That might be a great speed-dating idea; I should start a running-dating company. And lastly, if it’s just a terrible, no good, very bad day and nothing is going to make you happy, it might be better to skip the run. Try something different, such as yoga, indoor climbing, spin class, or lifting weights. It’s a nice break for both your mind and body and WAY better than being grumpy.

winter running - SAD - sunny

Head out for a run when it’s sunny!

Positive Self- Talk

One thing not mentioned on the list of possible treatments for SAD is positive self-talk. Simply changing your attitude and thinking positive may change your outlook on life. There is not scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of positive self-talk, but I think everyone has experienced the benefits at some point in their life. Those of you who know me well may know of the Glad Game. It’s a game I like to play when I’m feeling down or things aren’t going my way. It helps me to put things back in perspective and remind myself that life is not that bad. The Glad Game is simple; you literally just start listing things you are glad about. For example: “I’m glad I have two legs to walk around on,” or “I’m glad the sun is shining today,” or “I’m glad that I have friends who care about me.” It sounds silly, but it works. I like to play this game when I hit a rough patch in a race or when I am upset about something at work. Although it may not solve the problem, it does allow me to think more rationally about the situation and maybe turns the corners of my mouth up into a smile.

Winter running - SAD - groomed trail

“I’m glad I’m on a groomed trail.”

In general, we tend to dwell on the negative and forget to acknowledge all the great things we have in our lives. This can especially be exaggerated with SAD during the winter months. Next time you are feeling down, instead of digging a yourself a hole try playing the Glad Game. I bet you’ll feel better!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you been diagnosed with SAD or experienced recurrent symptoms like those that Stephanie describes? If so, how have you successfully dealt with them in order to make life still happen?
  • It’s easy to see how SAD (or similar winter-doldrums feelings) can negatively impact runners. What do you do to get out the door when your mind and body just don’t want to go?
SAD running - dog

Now go romp through the snow with your best friend!

References

1. Duckworth K, Freedman JL. Seasonal affective disorder fact sheet. National Alliance on Mental Illness. 2012. Retrieved from: www.nami.org.

2. Levitan RD. The chronobiology and neurobiology of winter seasonal affective disorder. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2007;9(3):315-24.

Stephanie Howe

, a coach and nutrition consultant at REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, started competing as a nordic skier and migrated to running in college. Stephanie now balances her schedule competing as an elite runner for The North Face, working at REP Lab and teaching at Oregon State University – Cascades in their Exercise Physiology program. You can learn more about Stephanie at REPoregon.com.

There are 20 comments

  1. Jamie

    I have a number of songs that get me motivated. Some of them come from the various running videos on the web (Joel Wolpert's are a personal favorite, with his use of local, otherwise unknown and unlikely-to-be-heard-on-the-radio songs. Though the Lumineers ended up breaking through). Others are songs I've found stuck in my head a lot while running that I now associate with great runs in the mountains (I had "Change" by Churchill stuck in my head all the way up and down Longs Peak this summer).

    Otherwise, I try to think of the weather as an opponent, giving me something to run against.

    When all else fails, I remember that I'm a Minnesotan in Colorado, and that shames me out the door in even the worst that CO has to offer.

  2. KenZ

    "That might be a great speed-dating idea; I should start a running-dating company."

    Brilliant. Only it wouldn't be speed dating if the other person happens to a) be annoying and b) run faster than you, and thus you can't drop them with a quick hill sprint! You'd have to hold it at the track and make it 800s or something…

  3. GC

    There's is science behind a new version of positive self talk, it's called the positivity ratio in the broaden and bud theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, B. 2001). It says it takes 3 contextual positives to counter one negative thought. It's been tested in some settings and I am to test it on marathon runners in my Masters dissertation.

  4. Greg

    I've battled with SAD for most of my life and have found the most effective strategy, which shouldn't surprise any runners out there, is consistency. Symptoms always seem to pop up the week after a weekend of too much, ahem… 'socializing'. I'm sure a few drinks doesn't help, but I've found the most significant factor is getting out of rhythm with my day to day schedule. Out late, wake up late, eat at weird hours (not to mention usually junk food..).

    Running has played a crucial role in helping me cope with the winter struggle. No matter what I'm going through mentally/emotionally, I can always count on running to be there as my mechanism of working through problems. Even if I can't run because of injury (ya, I'm talking to you, past 4 months of my life..), I'm able to focus on other areas of my training to stay in shape so I know I'll be more than ready to get back on the trails when my body is all healed up. Even if I'm not running, I know it will always be there for me; it's my constant.

    I totally agree with Stephanie's point on changing up your routes if your not motivated, and would like to further that by saying that it's a great plan for all aspects of your life if you are down with the winter blues. If you are having trouble accomplishing something, change your environment. Can't get motivated for writing a report/paper? Get out of the office and go to a coffee shop. Need to get some housework done? Put on some music to reduce the monotony. The simple act of engaging in changing one aspect of your environment will almost always be enough to turn that productivity switch on.

    Oh, and take those vitamin D supplements!

  5. Jeremy

    For me, SAD goes hand in hand with vitamin D deficiency, less training volume and much higher injury risk. Lots of bad things happen when we don't get any rays.

    Last I saw you was at Bandera, about 12 miles in. I was limping along with a blown out calf muscle and you were in the clutches of the flu. We both resolved to quit right away. I ended up catching a ride back to x-roads aid. Thanks for hobbling along with me for a minute.

    That "bad" experience gave me every opportunity to let SAD get a grip. I was laid up for a while with no exercise. Even if I could go outside in Western Central Idaho, there is little sun to be had- without frostbite. So, I gave the wound time to heal, thought about the big races this summer and stayed HUNGRY. After a week, I wrapped that bad wheel up in an Ace bandage and got moving. March is just around the corner. I think I finally cracked the high-latitude, high altitude winter training puzzle. Run more!

    Hope you get your "golden ticket" that eluded you at Bandera. Best wishes this year. Jeremy

    1. Stephanie

      Hi Jeremy! I'm glad to hear you are healing up! Yep, Bandera was rough for us both. Best to look forward to future races. It took me almost a month to fully recover, but now I'm back and SO READY to race! See you out on the trails!

  6. Pete

    I avoid SAD by skiing copious amounts of powder. Either way I feel like I am completely happy and satisfied. There are many ways to avoid the big winter let down just got to find a way to enjoy the cold.

  7. Aaron Sorensen

    I decided to not run at all during the month of January.

    Not that anything hurt, just so I could go the rest of the year from there.

    Man was that a huge hit in my performance.

    Before I was doing hard 20 mile long runs with 3K of climbing with gas in the tank at the finish. Now I'm doing a 13.5 mile loop with 2K of climbing and doing each mile at least 1:30 slower and feeling SAD at the end.

    Good (true) article.

  8. Allisa L

    Growing up in Wisconsin I had legit get-prescribed-for-meds SAD. Anti-depressents gave me side effects that were almost as bad as the SAD. My solution was to move to Colorado, but on days when I still feel it I use my own version of the self-talk method. Unlike people who have other types of depression, SAD gets better every year on a predictable schedule. I acknowledge that I FEEL like crap, but I remind myself that I KNOW it is going to get better from past experience. It's like in a race situation were you FEEL like you can't reach that distant finish line, but you KNOW your body is capable of getting you there. So I actually tell myself, "I'm glad I have SAD," because it makes me a stronger and more resilient runner and no race is ever going to be as difficult as pulling through depression. When that doesn't work I watch Salomon trail-running videos on youtube…

  9. Karen

    nothing seems to be working for me this year. at the moment SAD has it's grip on me tight and i do not have the mental resilience to put the miles in the way i should be.

    (i've been prescribed meds before too, and i agree with Allisa, the side effects are almost as bad as SAD itself and really don't seem worth it.)

    i know it's bad when i get to mile 4 and i'm warmed up and on a beautiful trail but i still just feel like stopping and sitting down and not going another step and the message 'i don't wanna be doing this' keeps popping up across the billboard in my head no matter how much i try to distract myself.

    the way i am dealing with it is by taking lots of classes at the gym. yoga, step, abs, conditioning, spinning, zumba, modern dance, salsa, pilates, tai chi, boot camp. basically anything available and lots of it. 3 classes a day in a row if i can. (something about taking a class removes decision making from the situation, which is probably where a depressed mind tends to create doubt) i don't get injured because of the variety, and i always feel amazingly sore in new ways the next day. so i figure it's gotta have some benefits. i have 4 marathons coming up and know that this isn't the ideal situation, but this is the best compromise i have found. i still try to get some runs in during the week, but i keep them very short and focused and usually do them on the treadmill. and i still do my long runs on the weekend but i DO NOT look at my time and try to see just the fact that i'm getting it done as a success.

    in a few weeks the clocks will change and the weather will get a bit warmer and i'll be back to my old self i'm certain. whew. (i guess i just needed to vent a little. so thanks!)

    also YAY to salomon trail-running videos! aren't they just a cure for everything?!?!

  10. Mike Behnke

    I think the best way for me to look at it is when I'm trudging slowly through the ice,snow, slush, etc. to realize that a 10-15 mile effort is like doing an 18-20 miler on a 50 degree beautiful dry roads day! These tough physical/mental efforts will pay off when doing that spring race. Then I go to the dreadmill for some speedwork on the in between days. I keep telling myself this will set myself up nicely for those high-mileage weeks in June, July, Aug. when the beautiful sun is beating down on my shirtless bod! So keep on trudging along, it will be over soon.

  11. Joe Gerard

    Maybe some of you are running too much year round. I mean if you always run, it would be natural to get kinda sick of it, and that can only be compounded by the winter time blahs. It is nice to take a break, and if you don't want to rest, I have found that cross country skiing is a great way to burn through winter. Of course there are days I don't want to go out either, but having a big goal race like the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin keeps me motivated through the winter. Of course there might not be something like that everywhere, but maybe try to find something similar? There is always downhill skiing, snowshoeing, skating, hockey, ice fishing, dog sledding, extreme mountain tobogganing, and so forth. I think doing one sport year round is the recipe for burn out. And I do get spring fever, too. I'm not immune.

    And 2 of the pictures in this article have "winter runners" wearing short sleeves, that's not winter running!!

  12. Walter

    Winters used to kill me. Dark on the way into work and dark by the time I get home. Running has helped but it's also the time of year that running feels like work. The weekday runs are boring, cold and difficult to stay motivated for. I'm ready for spring and summer. I wish the afternoon run was an option for me. I think about it all day but once I get home it's a struggle to get out the door. Early spring races are the only thing keeping me going. Days are getting longer. It will be spring before we know it!

  13. Lauren C

    So glad to hear that we share the same justification! The hardest part is letting go of my ego and ignoring my watch, and accepting that I'm not going to be setting a ground breaking pace in these conditions. Those beautiful dry roads are just around the corner and I'm just itching to cash in on the past months of slush-trudgin and ice-slippin! Cowwabunngaa!

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