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Real Talk About Mental Health Struggles And Running

Why do you run?

For most of us, I’d bet that it’s because it makes us feel good, physically and mentally.

While racing has caused quite a bit of stress over the years (!), running itself helps me relax and deal with my anxiety in a productive manner. When I’m struggling with self doubt, social anxiety, or overwhelmed with school/blogging/life, I head out for a run. It almost always puts a smile on my face, and raises my heart rate for a good reason.

I started running in 2012, running the London Marathon in memory of my friend, Vic, who had taken his own life after suffering with depression. I chose to raise money for MIND—a mental health charity that helps those that need it most—and want to remove the stigma that is still attached to mental health issues.

For too long, mental health has been something we don’t talk about. We’ve been made to feel like we’re okay, and that you’re not supposed to say anything if you’re not okay.

But it’s okay not to be okay. If you’re struggling, having a rough day, or just need something to make you smile—let someone know. You are not alone.

I’ve been sharing my struggles with anxiety on Instagram and never expected such a positive response. As well as garnering plenty of likes and comments, my posts inspired some people to reach out to me privately, sharing their struggles or advice, and it brought to my attention an incredible movement going on in the UK right now: #WhatIfIRunWithYou

It started when a runner, Andy, saw a lady struggling through a 6-mile run—she’d all but given up at 5.7 miles—so he offered to run with her. He knew he couldn’t take away the pain she was going through, but he could support her until the end.

He then saw another girl, Charlie, speaking openly on Instastories about breaking down 2 miles into her training run, as well as her struggle with depression and anxiety. Andy went out that evening and ran 2 miles for Charlie.

He shared his sentiment on Instagram, explaining that he and a friend would be running a marathon the following weekend, wearing white tops adorned with the names of those that they were running for—anyone that was struggling or needed an extra bit of love, motivation or reassurance that someone out there cared. The idea was to raise awareness of those suffering with mental illness and to show anyone that needed someone that someone is, in fact, out there rooting for them.

Since that marathon, more than 1,300 posts have been shared with the hashtag #WhatIfIRunWithYou, and runners from across the UK have written the name of a person on their top or the back of their hand. (I’ve even been lucky enough to have mile dedicated to me by one of the crew after sharing my story with him!)

Luckily it’s more than just the online running community that can be beneficial to mental health. Numerous studies, dating back more than 30 years have shown that regular exercise can help alleviate symptoms of depression, as well as lowering the risk of depression. Here are some tidbits:

  • Running helps reduce stress by lowering the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Aerobic exercise can reduce both generalized anxiety and anxiety sensitivity.
  • It improves sleep by creating regular sleep cycles and lowering depression symptoms that have been linked to insomnia.
  • You’ll see an increase in body confidence through training, self esteem and social confidence, as well as determination and resilience.
  • Running encourages social interaction, both online and in real life. While this can also create anxiety in itself (who hasn’t had the worry that they’re not fast enough to run with a group?), having a social support network is fundamental for dealing with mental health issues.
  • It gives you a goal outside of work/family environments. It’s a personal challenge, an outside focus that gives you some ‘me’ time away from the daily stresses.
  • Studies have shown that performing activities outside, aka “ecotherapy,” help with mental wellness, especially for those at risk of, or already suffering with, mental health problems.

So, if you’ve ever needed an extra boost, an acknowledgment that you’re not alone, slip on your trainers and head to your local park, or search the hashtag and send the team behind #WhatIfIRunWithYou an email, asking for a little support; I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to dedicate some miles to you.

Charlie Watson

Charlie Watson is a runner, fitness blogger at The Runner Beans, journalist and soon-to-be dietitian. She’s currently checking all six marathon majors off her race bucket list before she’s 30. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Bloglovin, as well as channeling her inner Casey Neistat on her new YouTube channel.