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.