“Why do you run?”
This is a question I see asked a lot on Instagram accounts to trigger conversations around the motivation behind people who run regularly. The answers often follow a similar pattern. The winner of the race, so to speak, is the vast majority of people who regularly run do it for improved mental health.
Having gone from being an occasional runner pre-2020 to running over 1,000 miles in 2020, I can vouch from personal experience as to why mental health comes out top of the reasons why people run.
2020 – the year everything changed
Everyone’s experience of 2020 and the multiple lockdowns is different, that’s something I’ve seen clearly. The one consistent theme I’ve heard is how at varying stages it has put strain or pressure upon everybody, without exception. The term mental health, be it anxiety, depression, stress has become far wider discussed over the last 18 months than ever before.
My own personal experience as a dad of 3 young children was that the first lockdown threw me right in the deep end as far as life changes go. Up until then, I worked 4 days a week with two children at primary school and 1 at nursery. Suddenly I was furloughed for the first 2 months in April and May. I had all 3 children at home all day every day with me, trying to homeschool and parent them 24/7.
What made it especially difficult in those first few weeks was that the uncertain messages about ‘shielding’ that we were given at the outset meant my wife had to spend 2 weeks self-isolating herself from the rest of us at home. This meant that I was single parenting them from dawn to dusk, plus sleeping in the spare bedroom with the smallest child, every day. People have it harder than that even without Covid, but for me, that was a big change all at once.
Even when she came out of shielding, as she was a key worker, she carried on working from home. This meant I was doing the majority of the parenting/homeschooling. I’ve always been told I have a lot of patience and stay calm in stressful situations. This can mean though that when the pressure is high you tend to soak it up more and more until eventually, you snap.
I can still vividly remember the evening about a month into homeschooling where I officially snapped. My wife came downstairs after finishing work and I was so full of stress and anger. It had been another failed day of trying to teach a 5-year-old and 7-year-old. At the same time, I had a 2-year-old charge about the place. I just snapped. Handing over responsibility to her, I got changed into my running gear and headed out. I can still remember one of my children innocently asking, “Where are you going Daddy?” and me snapping back, “Anywhere but here!”.
I ran so hard that evening that I still to this day haven’t bettered my 5km time. Did that run “fix” my mental fatigue and stress? No, not at all, I got back and was still angry and didn’t want to speak to anyone.
However, what it did do was make it clear to me that something needed to change. It triggered conversations between my wife and I that helped us communicate better. The result was a new arrangement of allowing me some regular ‘me time’ away from the children and homeschooling. Running quickly became that ‘me time’.
Running for mental health
Over the coming months, I finished furlough and started working from home and the children slowly went back to school. Then they were home again, then at school again! During this time, I increasingly leaned on running to help manage my mental health through all these constant changes of routine and stresses.
I found rather than just being a release of pent-up anger, it actually allowed my head time to process and work through anything that was troubling me. Both short or longer-term concerns. My mind would drift just listening to the repetitive beat of my feet on the ground. I would be present with my surroundings. Maybe it was birds singing in the trees or the sound of cars driving past me.
A lot of people run with headphones listening to podcasts or music. I have never gone down that route as for me running is often a form of mindfulness. Being present in my surroundings lets me feel more gratitude for the positives about the here and now. This is in place of letting my mind dwell on future concerns. I even started taking pictures of where I was running on my phone. Doing so made me appreciate how lucky I was to be able to do this.
Ultimately, you don’t need to run 1,000 miles to find the positives as I have had from running. I think my story is one that worked for me and my situation. The key messages of giving yourself ‘me time’, being present in your surrounding by focusing on the here and now and remembering that self-care isn’t selfish are applicable to everyone.
I wouldn’t have considered myself as someone who struggles with their mental health. However, 2020 taught me that when life gives you so much change and stress anyone can be knocked back. You just need to be aware that there are always steps you can take to change the areas within your control that will help your mental health. It won’t take away those aspects outside of your control causing the stress. However, you will be better placed to tackle them.
You can follow Ian’s running journey on his Instagram account
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