MENTAL HEALTH AND THE RUNNER
This isn’t article isn’t about getting faster or staying injury free and healthy. And yet, it is. The message I am trying to convey has everything to do with these things. That’s because accomplishing great performance and good health is not always through the endless pursuit of the best running shoe, the right strengthening exercise, the perfect orthopedic doctor, or the ultimate training plan.
Through my experience of working one-on-one with runners, the biggest thing I’ve come to know is how hard it is for an injured runner to pause and reflect. Not on their perceived successes and failures, rather – on aspects of their lives outside of the running world. Failing to take inventory of one’s life emotionally, socially, and spiritually can often be a limiting factor of success. Many runners neglect to reflect on what success really means to them personally in the long-term. Many runners look at short term successes such as a PR for their next race rather than long term successes like feeling healthy and being able to run for years to come.
Why are we failing to pause and reflect? For one, taking a good hard look at ourselves is scary. When we start to examine ourselves as runners, we may find that a lot of the behaviors or patterns we have around running are occurring in other areas of our life. For example, what is your reaction if you miss a workout or don’t run the pace you wanted? How does that reaction relate to other situations in your life?
There are also a large number of runners whose identity surrounds running. What are we if we are not running, if we are not pursuing, if we are not competing and getting faster?
Finally, runners are using running as stress management and mental/emotional health. There is no space to pause and reflect because without running, “I’ll go crazy!”
I would argue that running is being used as an ineffective management tool for stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
- Ok, don’t go up in arms just yet! Keep reading -
OF COURSE, running and any other form of exercise is an excellent tool to manage mental and emotional health. The research has shown this. However, if the relationship with running is not a healthy one and not coming from a healthy intent and motivation, running can be detrimental. There are so many reasons that people run but can easily come from a place of punishment rather than a place of enjoyment. Running can also become a way to run from mental health issues and not a way to run for improvement or maintenance of mental health.
What if you came to me with a running injury and I said, “You need to take time off from running?”
How would you handle this situation? What thoughts and emotions come up?
Here are a few things I’ve heard over the years, in case you’re having trouble here.
- “My kids know mommy isn’t happy if she doesn’t run.”
- “I’m a crazy person if I don’t get to run.”
- “I’m not a good person if I don’t get my run in.”
- “I HAVE to run.”
What if you miss a day due to a schedule conflict? How would you handle this situation? What thoughts and emotions come up?
- “I’m lazy.”
- “I’m not good enough.”
Now, I rarely have to tell people to stop running because, unless it’s a more serious case like a bone injury, time off doesn’t usually help. However, I do often address training load in the face of injury or poor performance. The “less is more” or “slower is better” training method is growing in popularity for good reasons. In addition, we are becoming ever more educated on how important recovery is for successful improvements in performance. Yet, even as big-name runners are seeing huge success with these methods, people are having a really hard time slowing down, taking an extra day off, getting enough calories during the day, etc.
With a toolbox full of self-reflection, self-compassion, and the ability to cope without running, would you be able to see that these suggestions (of rest and recovery) may have far greater long-term benefits? Maybe you would have many PRs in the future in exchange for slower (or no) races this year? Maybe you would have no more chronic injury that is keeping you from PRs anyway?
Even better, might you feel better overall in your daily life?
Starting now, I strongly encourage you to think about whether your mindset toward running (or your mindset toward a life without running) is sabotaging your success and health or helping it.
Here are some exercises/questions you can reflect on to help you successfully manage your running (or exercise) mindset:
Ask yourself if you are running from your mental health or for your mental health.
List out the things you have outside of running (and exercise) that bring you joy and help you manage stress (or other mental health issues).
When setting a running goal, whether it be to complete a race or do heart rate training (read: slow down!), answer the following:
What are my values and priorities (i.e. family time, career, running personal bests, etc)? Keep in mind, many of us do not HAVE to run. Unless you are making money running, you likely don’t HAVE to run. However, may be higher on the priority list because of relationships we build through running or the sense of self-accomplishment it brings us. After-all, everyone is allowed to have their own order of priorities.
What is my WHY? Why am I running? Why am I signed up for this next race?
What are my goals, both short-term and long-term (i.e. I have a short-term goal of running a PR and a long-term goal of running when I’m 80)?
Do my goals align with my values and priorities and do my short-term goals align with my long-term goals? Does my training plan align with my values and priorities and goals? Does my coach’s philosophy align with my values and priorities and goals?
REFLECT OFTEN! Go back to these answers whenever you have a decision to make about whether you should run on any given day, go get an injury treated, stick to a training plan, take a break, compete in a race, etc.
If you recognize that your mindset or mental health is sabotaging your success and need some extra help to sort through it all, I strongly encourage you to consult with a mental health therapist for further guidance. It can be of the greatest benefit to treat our mental health like we treat our physical health (and it’s not just for when we hit bottom)!
Healthy Mindset, Healthy Running,
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