Running and Our Mental Health

AJWs TaproomThere’s an ongoing joke in my family that goes something like this:

I get home from work in the evening and after traipsing grumpily around the house for about five minutes, the general consensus emerges from my wife and kids that I need to go for a run. Usually, it’s my wife, Shelly, who has the duty of confronting me.

“Andy, it seems like you had a rough day. Before this gets any worse, how about you go for a run?”

And, of course, as any good husband/father would do, I quickly oblige, lace ’em up, and return 30 to 45 minutes later ready for a do-over. It pretty much always works and the rest of the evening proceeds as if we’re living in a 1950s sitcom.

Now, I don’t intend to get too scientific or introspective here because, after all, it’s August and nobody wants that. But in recent weeks, I have been thinking quite a bit about running and what it does for my mental health. And, by association, what it does for all of our mental health. In a very simple and poignant way, for those of us who’ve embraced it, running keeps us stable.

As someone who has been around the sport for 20 years, I have made a few observations about the folks who’ve found their way into ultrarunning. And, while many are normal, average Janes and Joes, there are more than a few among us that always seem to have a story to tell. Those folks who make you wonder, “Is he running to something or from something?” We all know these people. We love and embrace them but they also make us question, curiously and without judgement, what exactly is going on with that guy?

Of course, most people in the outside world, even if they have read Born To Run, bought a pair of Hokas, and seen Unbreakable, think we’re totally nuts. But on the inside, where it matters, in that happy place where all our troubles slip away and we contentedly just put one foot in front of the other, we’re all just a bunch of people doing what we love. And, for the most part, in fact, almost always, that’s true.

But, I am left with a few nagging questions. Is there something about running that keeps us level? Is there something about this sport that attracts and sustains those on the fringe? And, perhaps most importantly, is there something about running long distances that allows us to become whole, to find that thing, whatever it is, that might be missing in the rest of our lives?

The answers to these questions I am sure can be found in a scientific analysis of our brains or our nervous systems. Perhaps, over a couple hundred hours of interviews, some psychologist could figure out what it is that makes us tick. In fact, I bet with enough analysis, a competent professional could figure us all out and we could save a heck of a lot of money on shoes. But, alas, I really have no interest in learning about any of that.

Instead, what I love to know is that, in spite of our incessant quirkiness, this whole thing works. For whatever reason, running makes us feel better. For almost all of us, a day with a run is better than a day without a run and even a bad day running is better than a good day at work. And, while I have a fleeting interest in the physiological reasons behind the endorphin rush I get after finishing a run, the real reason I love it so much is that it makes me feel alive. My daily run makes me feel more human and involved than just about anything else in my life and along the way it helps me stay balanced and focused in a world that is increasingly out of balance and distracted.

In the end, what I am interested in more than anything is the knowledge and the understanding that this thing we long to do every day, this thing that brings us so much joy and pain and heartache, this thing that makes us understand who we are and why we are here, this thing that makes us fit and happy and whole. That this thing, this running thing, is really such a simple, graceful, and democratic thing that we want everyone to share in our euphoria every time we lace up our shoes and head out the door. And yet, they can’t. Because, you see, this thing is ours, in whatever way we wish to define it. And that, ultimately, is why we do it.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Cigar City Jai Alai IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida. I’ve been trying to get my hands on their Jai Alai IPA for a couple months and finally found some last week and it did not disappoint. Served in colorful throwback cans, this 70IBU, 7.5% IPA is balanced, fruity, and fun. Just like everything else in Florida!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How does running keep you on the, shall we say, correct side of the road?
  • It’s clearly human nature to use outlets for relaxation and recovery when life gets busy and stressful. Besides running, what other outlets do you employ for emotional relief?

There are 45 comments

  1. Pierre

    Another great subject AJW. Whether i ran an hour, more, less, had a great run, or a poor one, its the feeling of satisfaction of having done it. Sitting on the porch, unlacing my shoes, having a sip of whats left in my bottle, ahhhh… Small joy

    The world is a crazy place, and running is an antidote. Meditation in movement.

  2. Charlie M.

    If we runners are so "balanced and focused" in an increasingly "unbalanced and distracted" world, then why did all those Crazy Colorful new shoe models find their way to the Outdoor Retailer Show? The rest of the world must think Runners are WAY out of balance, looking at them wacky shoes…. :)

    1. Speedgoatkarl

      At the present time, the Euro market has moved into the US. In somewhat recent years, I've raced in Europe at UTMB, a very "colorful" event. And now many US runners are headed to Europe to race….so we follow the masses like everyone else. it's the american way right? Soon we'll go back to bland colors. Roll with it, cuz' everyone else is doing it…

      1. Charlie M.

        Silliness….I need 3 colors for my Hokas. Pure black (for formal wear), Pure brown (for casual wear) and Pure Dark Gray with 1 or 2 overlays (for racing, like an old Vitesse). And I don't need Nicolas M. to put "Hoka" all over the shoe in big letters! Damn the marketing, give me the shoe! :)

  3. Tahoe Pete

    I find that when I step onto the trails and start running my mind and body becomes free of all of life's stresses. It is a time where I can let go and just enjoy simplicity. In this day and age that is hard to do. There is nothing better then breathing that fresh mountain air while summiting a peak and taking it all in. Clarity is always acheived no matter how good or bad the legs feel.

  4. Andy (not AJW)

    As a psychologist, I could expound on the multitude of ways that running and mental health are intertwined, including meditative, physiologic, neuroendocrine, escapist, addictive, transcendant, grounding, atavistic, masochistic … well, point is made. So I won't. Instead I'll abide by the old adage never to mix business with pleasure. Even when the pleasure often involves pain.

    Now, as for Andy's WSCD (Western States Compulsive Disorder), that's another matter … :-)

  5. Andrea Risi

    I appreciate your article Andy, because I too believe in the mind-body connection! I'm a psychotherapist and ultrarunner. There is no better drug for those suffering from anxiety or depression than exercise. When we increase our blood pressure and heart rate (even minimally) with exercise, "feel good" chemicals like serotonin and endorphins are released in our brain. It happens quickly and every time…there's no waiting 30 days (or longer!) for medication to start working. Positive thoughts, creativity and problem-solving are all heightened through movement.

    Not only do I talk to my clients about the mind-body connection, but I experience it and search for it myself daily. More and more research is pointing to this connection (even though we athletes have known it for a long time). So my favorite quote: "Running is cheaper than therapy" is an understatement ;)

  6. Steve P

    I've been probably averaging an hour a day of running for the past 38 years, always have and always will enjoy that time on the roads or trails…but now in my 60's my mind is starting to think of more hiking and less running, where I'll still get my grounding…but not until after running that last marathon…or trail 50K ;-)

  7. C

    There is a very deep connection between exercise and mental health. After several dark years I returned to running six years ago and haven't needed Prozac since.

  8. brandon

    Life is just so damn complicated most of the time. Yet running is so simple. Whether it's on the trails or roads, but especially well off the beaten path where you don't have to worry about cars, pedestrians, etc (except maybe a crazy mountain biker or two), running is about as simple as it gets. Forward motion, hydrate, eat, more forward motion. Just get where you're headed and then turn around and come back. Simple. No phones (smart or otherwise), no BS, just you and your own thoughts (some good, some bad, usually a mix of both). I'm starting to understand that most people out there don't get running, but I also understand they don't have to. Those who care about us know that it's good for us and that's what matters most.

    Another great post AJW! I always look forward to reading your stuff.

  9. Anonymous

    Some people may tell you I have a running problem, but I've always thought of it as the running solution! This summer I brought it up to about a 100-mile a week "habit," and I've never felt better! And over the years I've tried just about everything, and nothing, nothing has ever worked this good!

    JV in SD

  10. Rob M.

    Joe Henderson wrote in the Long Run Solution "I see my therapist every day for an hour and it only cost 25 cents." (Amortize a pair of shoes over 500 – 700 miles and that's what you get.) I couldn't agree more.

  11. Teresa Smith

    Andy, Very articulated article! I'm an easy going person and contribute that to running. I have found my stress/life antidote is running. Why do I feel strong physically, while others are winded, because I sweat on a daily basis. Honestly I don't understand why everyone isn't running. Thanks again, Andy!

  12. Astroyam

    Are these benefits more noticeable in running than in other endurance sports?

    Do cyclists and swimmers get the same amount of benefit? Any studies on this?

  13. Patrick

    Thanks AJW! I love my Friday fix. Aside from the stress reduction, running is also when I come up with my best "ideas." Not always good in retrospect but they seem great while running. I think mountain biking might closely equate to trail running for stress release but all of the extra gear negates some of it.

    1. PutMeBackOnMyBike

      Oh but the gear, the lovely shiny, carbon covered gear. That just makes it so much better. Hmmm – I'm off for a ride (fractured metatarsal – can't run) !

  14. Tom Caughlan


    Agreed. As a psychotherapist I'm always in awe of the mood regulating nature that running has and the transformation I see client's go through when they take on a regular regime. My experience, and studies (as you know), suggest better results than psychotropics. I wish that wellness was emphasized more in the mental health field.

  15. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Your column resonates with me because I'm injured and not running — and consequently depressed and out of sorts. Going to the gym and breaking a sweat on the stationary bike just doesn't achieve the same gains for me mentally or physically. I'm seriously missing the rhythm, routine — everything that's been articulated above about running. Only dedicated, long-term runners understand and empathize with how distressing it is not to run.

  16. Fiona

    Running is the best antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug on the market!! Best of all it's free and has no harmful side effects! (Definitely addictive though!)

  17. Chris

    No question, running is great for you. I feel like a better person after I run… more ambitious, more in tune, more relaxed. That said, anything that has an addictive or compulsive component to it (which running obviously does for lots of folks) shouldn't just be taken for granted as an inherently worthwhile pursuit. If I NEED to run in order to be in a good mood or to be there for the people close to me then maybe I need to address that issue? I don't intend to say give up runni g of course, we can all find the appropriate time but if you get to the pint that you nees that fix to set things right, you're addicted. Sure, it's a hell of a lot better than most addictions but ts still got a hold on you.

    1. Mike

      I agree. As someone who used running as a way to escape anxiety, I always reminded myself that I also run because I love it, not just as a "therapy" so to speak. I hope that I can take what I've learn from running and transfer it to other passions, should the need ever arise!

    2. Pantman

      I have a chocolate problem – in the past when left to my own desires I would just eat it and eat it. I was fat and felt like crap. I ate when I was hungry and when I wasn't – it made me feel sick but I kept on eating. But while I ate I felt better for that brief moment – a depression quashing high. But once it was all gone I'd have to keep eating to keep that feeling. It required effort to stop.

      I run a high mileage now and it helps with depression – makes feel great. Some people could suggest that one addiction has gone and another has replaced it. I totally disagree – the two things are completely different. The feeling it gives me does not stop when the run ends but continues for hours afterwards – it does not harm me, but makes me better in every sense. But the most important different, the one that makes the very use of the word "addiction" totally erroneous, is that when left to my own desires I'll bail on a run – though I love it and it makes me feel good it still requires effort to do, not effort to stop doing.

  18. Hone

    Charlie- the fact that you are even wearing Hokas already tells us that you have no issues with wearing something ugly. Why would you care about the colors? It is like dating a woman that is uglier than hell and then complaining when she puts on a little makeup. Just saying.

  19. Kirby

    A pair of Hokas is far cheaper than a therapist. Thanks for a nice column after a stressful week with no running. Going to lace up my shoes and go…..

  20. Chris

    I run to be free. I grew up in a hostile home and running was the one thing I could do to get away (my dad was a sports nut so I never had a problem saying I was going for a run). My outings got longer and longer as I tried to prolong the sense of freedom before returning home. As an adult, there is much less at stake, but I still run to feel free of the demons that haunt me.

  21. Mike

    After several attempts to beat pretty bad anxiety using traditional anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants I decided…f*k it, I'm going to run instead. Changed my life. Or rather, I got it back. I also look better (lost about 20 pounds of beer weight) and feel better physically and that has an equally uplifting effect.

  22. Katrin Silva

    Great post, AJW. Running is a powerful drug, with largely positive side effects. Going for a run can turn a good day into a great one, and a crappy day into something tolerable. Running is a cleansing experience. When I run, all my anxieties rise to the surface during the first hour or so. Then, they pop like bubbles, and disappear without a trace. A blissful, nirvana-like state replaces them, which lasts until physical discomfort starts to set in. During those hours, my mind becomes clear.. My priorities rearrange themselves. I feel one with nature, at peace with the world. I forgive grudges. I am an atheist, but during those moments, and hours, I sense the connection between all living things that others choose to call god. Friends who meditate have described a similar mental state after years of practice.

    I get a lot of concerned comments from non-running friends and family members. People think of my running as an obsession, or an addiction. But I believe they would not condemn a two-hour-or-more per day yoga or meditation habit. Maybe we should call running "meditation in motion."

  23. Tom Gamber

    Andy, great article. I have taken to ultra running due to diagnosed mental health reasons. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

  24. Tessa

    I think they can. I grew up with an ultra-cyclist dad (as we speak is riding 100 miles a day for 10 days to cover MN top to bottom). The same phenomenon as Andy described played out in my house ever since my dad picked up cycling 20 years ago. Everything is always happier if he gets his ride in, which is why my mother still tolerates being a "bike widow" for a few longer stretches each year.

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