How Running Helps My Depression: An Interview

how running helps depression
In this interview we chat with the writer of blog Mind of a Mum about how running has helped her to cope with depression. She shares some honest and thoughtful insights into depression, the benefits of running, and how people can help each other. She blogs anonymously, because she wants to focus on sharing the experience of depression rather than on herself. So for this article we’ve called her Jo. 

Q: Please share a little about yourself and your situation.

Jo is mum to two young children, and works three days a week. She is a runner and a blogger and an experienced professional, as well as someone who also happens to have depression.

She says she is still coming to terms with the idea of having depression, having only recently confided in other people about it, even though she says she has known it herself for a long time. She explains:

“I knew I was depressed from about the age of 15. But depression doesn’t define who I am, it’s something I experience.”

The depression Jo experiences is described as “high-functioning” which means that she can pretty much carry on with her life, dealing with everyday interactions and appearing to others as if everything is alright, but all the time feeling differently inside.

“Most people would think I’m fine. But when I’m on my own it takes over. I get a real physical sensation in my chest.

“Running really helps me, so it’s important for me to squeeze running and training in around all the other things in life, and fit it in around the chaos of having small kids!”

Q: Why did you start running?

“Actually I’ve been running forever. I ran cross country at school, although I also got into other sports as a teenager. I was competitive and enjoyed sport, and already knowing I had depression I realised that sport distracted me and made me feel better.

“But I’m also a hard worker and I wanted to do well academically. I studied hard for all my exams and during these periods I couldn’t find time for exercise. But then I really suffered and felt stressed and needed to burn off the emotion but had no outlet for it. So it was harder to study when I wasn’t exercising because I felt tired and drained and down.”

Jo explains that lack of exercise can trigger a negative cycle for her:

“I’m still a workaholic, and when work gets really busy and I don’t make time for running, I feel so much worse. Even just a short 10 minute run can make a real difference.”

Q: Why do you think running helps with depression?

“Sometimes I just want to be outside and experience nature, be more in touch with things. This morning, for example, I was really struggling just to get out of the car, but I really wanted to run and so that desire enabled me to move myself.

“Running is a form of mindfulness. I can focus simply on my breathing. It takes my thoughts away from everything I worry about, and I just think about running.”

Jo says that different types of runs all seem to have a positive effect:

“On a slow run sometimes I can think more clearly. I feel in the moment, and can get out of my own head. I often don’t take a watch. I just want to be out in the open and feel more in touch with nature.

“But I also love hard sessions… hills, intervals, and similar. It feels a bit like having a punch bag! I can get the pent up feelings out of my system.

“It was harder to manage when my kids were really small. I couldn’t just go for a run whenever I wanted. I had post-natal depression and hit rock bottom without being able to exercise. At that point I needed to accept that I had depression. The exercise is like medication and if I don’t get it I really suffer.”

Q: Are there times when you struggle to feel motivated to run? Do you think depression makes this harder? What do you do to motivate yourself?

“I find I need structure. I like to have a training plan, and I have my own coach now – we have a phone call once a week. My coach is great because she understand the need to adapt my training depending on how I’m feeling with the depression. I’ve completely given her the responsibility for planning the training, which is great because I just go and do it! I feel accountable to my coach – even if I don’t really feel like going for a run, I feel like I owe to her. And it makes me put a bit more effort in to the harder sessions.”

Jo also explains that it’s important to have “outcome goals” and “process goals” – in other words to have a main objective like a race, but also to have interim goals to keep you on track with training.

“I think I have to enter a race to have the fear of that upcoming event. I’m training for a charity run next spring – it’s an ultra over two days. That’s keeping me focused right now!”

Jo says it was hard to get back into running after having kids.

“I started again with Race for Life, because it’s a great atmosphere, it’s not competitive, and it’s less intimidating with just women.”

And how about those times when it’s hard to get out of the door?

“When things are hard, I make sure I get my running kit out ready on the morning of a run, even if I’m not running until the evening. I go past it when I’m putting kids to bed. Then I have no excuses.”

“Imagine doing a bungee jump if you’re scared of heights. Sometimes it feels a bit like that. But as soon as you step out you’ll feel great. Sometimes I really don’t want to go out to run, but I know that I’ll love it once I’ve started. I have to remember that I’ll feel so much better for doing it.

“I only ever feel worse for not going. I never feel worse when I do go out, even if it’s only for a very short run.”

Q: Why do you think mental health issues are so poorly understood in our society?

“I still feel there’s a stigma attached to depression, which even I struggle to come to terms with myself. I have to work on fully accepting it.

“Accepting that I have clinical depression was an important step. It’s a hard thing to do. I feel I’ll be interpreted as being weak – maybe people will think I’m a bad mother, or a weak colleague. They might think I’m just a weird person. I might think that about myself too. There’s a fear of the stigma, and of being misunderstood.

“Depression is an illness, and yet I’m still struggling not to feel ashamed about it.”

Jo says that she thinks people find depression very hard to understand:

“Lots of people just don’t understand that it is a physiological thing, like any other illness. You can’t see it, it’s not like a broken leg, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

So what would improve the broader understanding of depression?

“I think we need to talk about it more. People are scared about how to respond. The British can be too stoic about things sometimes and think it’s better not to talk about things that might be seen as weak.”

Jo says she started writing her blog for exactly that reason.

“I couldn’t find much written by other mums on blogs or elsewhere about post-natal depression. There’s just ‘Fakebook’ where it can feel like everyone’s pretending they have perfect lives and perfect kids. We’re all putting on a face.

“It’s good to be more honest about things. Why aren’t other mums talking about problems?”

When she couldn’t find other blogs about postnatal depression, Jo felt a responsibility to share and talk about it, and how to deal with it. She wanted to share more about how to talk to people with depression.

“If someone tells you they are depressed, they probably want to talk about it! People need to feel more comfortable talking about it.”

Q: If someone reading this has a friend who may have depression, what could they do to be a good friend to them?

“Let them talk about it. Ask them what it means for them. Ask them what they would like you to do to help.

“Sometimes I just want to be on my own when I have bad days, but friendship still makes a huge difference – even help with small tasks can be really important. It’s often the little things. Also if you have depression and you find the courage to open up to someone, you need to feel that you’re not forgotten by them – it can be a hard thing to confide in someone, and it’s very hurtful if then that person overlooks the conversation.

“So I would encourage people to share, and not to make assumptions.”

Jo also talks about how running itself can be a good time to talk about depression.

“I think it’s a bit easier to talk when you’re running. Maybe it’s because you are with someone and sharing an experience and time with them, but you’re not looking straight at them in the eye. It’s somehow a bit easier to open up.”

how running helps depression

Running together can be a good time to talk openly.

Q: Have you seen running have the same positive effect on others with depression?

Jo explains that when she started telling people she had depression she found that other people often were not surprised, or that they had also experienced it themselves. There is a surprisingly high proportion of people who experience mental health problems, estimated at one in four people.

“When I’ve told people about my depression and how running helps me, often others have told me they also benefited from running to feel better.

“But I think there’s a sort of breed of runners, and it can be intimidating. Like at the start of a race I always look around and think everyone else is better – I think most people do that too! We can be a bit obsessive about what we’re trying to achieve. But everyone will feel the same in the finish line – it’s a real achievement and it feels good. Everyone has put the effort in to get out of the door to train. During the race we’re all feeling the same inside – we’ve got the same pain in our legs, and the same joy when we finish. So it’s important to try to put aside that tendency to feel intimidated.”

Jo shares a perfect quote from Henry Ford:

“He said: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ It’s so true.”

Q: How would you advise others to get started with running, especially those who have depression?

“Start slowly. Lots of people say ‘I can’t run’, but of course they can. Their problem is that they set off eyeballs out and it’s unpleasant for them. They need to start in a sustainable way so that they actually enjoy it.

“Even if you only start with running for 30 seconds, next time build it up to a minute. No matter what you do, it all counts, and you can build up from wherever your starting point is.

“Have a goal. Start with a Race for Life or a parkrun and just get out there and get moving. Don’t put pressure on yourself to run any distance or time, it’s just important simply to start.”

As Jo points out, sometimes people struggle with self-confidence that can prevent them starting in the first place. She says:

“Don’t worry about what you look like. If you’re overweight, people will think you are amazing for getting started. It’s very inspiring to see people who are struggling but are not giving up and are determined to do something challenging. And getting started will inspire others.

“Run from a tree to a tree. Or look up a Couch-to-5k programme, for support and motivation. Take things slowly, and feel good that you have managed to make a start.

“It’s also helpful to write down how you felt, immediately afterwards. Keep a diary, and you’ll be able to look back and see that you went out and you were really proud of yourself. It’s great to see the progress and where you’ve come from.”

UK Athletics have established a programme of Mental Health Ambassadors, a network of volunteers in running clubs and groups across England who support people with mental health problems to start running, get back into running, or develop their running, as well as improving the mental wellbeing of existing members. You can find out more here about finding a Mental Health Ambassador or becoming one yourself. Find out more here:

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