A celebration of running in nature

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Tom Goodhand shares this guest blog post celebrating the relationship between mental health and running…

It’s funny how some things just feel good and feel right, but almost without you knowing it. Like somewhere, deep down, instinctually (and almost certainly, chemically), your body is just saying “Yes, this is good, do more!” It’s so subtle, yet so persuasive, that it becomes part of what you do; part of what you love, even. And yet, you don’t stop to think, ‘Why?’.

That’s what running – particularly running out in green spaces – is for me and, I’d wager, most people in this club, reading this blog post.

In fact, in some ways, this post feels redundant at the start. I’m telling a bunch of runners that I like running. To what end? What am I getting out of writing this? And what are you getting out of reading it?

I think it’s a celebration.

It’s a celebration because this is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is nature. It got me thinking how over the last 12 months, running – and specifically, running out in glorious nature – has sustained, protected, and enriched my mental health.

My experience

I’m fortunate enough to say that my mental health is generally ok. Not great, but ok. I have, and do, struggle with anxiety. And certainly – like most people – have found the last year mentally challenging in a whole manner of ways. Now, as things start to open up, a whole new wave of anxieties, stresses and worries begin to appear.

But while the last year has been so differently difficult, I can also say, with some real confidence, that I’ve felt more consistently ‘ok’ this year than I can remember. That’s because this was also the year I found a drumbeat to steady me, and centre me: The huff-puff of my breathing, the pitter-patter (or if I’m tiring, ‘clunk! stomp!’) of my feet, the kilometres ticking away as I go.

This was the year I discovered that running can be more than a means of keeping fit, and can become a stabilising rhythm. And the year I realised that running doesn’t just need to be a couple of circuits of the local estate, headphones blaring to pump you up. It can be a way of connecting with yourself, clearing your mind and experiencing nature.

The benefits of nature

The people from the Mental Health Foundation say that a sense of “connectedness” with nature can make us “happier in life” with “lower depression and anxiety levels”. They talk about the importance of “a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings”. They have science to back it up and everything.

A nay-sayer might see a runner charging through their local woodlands as anything but connected. Head watching the ground for tripping roots or stubbing rocks. Mind on your watch, not on the sights. More likely to smell your own sweat than the flowers.

But look at it another way. Consider how much further you can go once you’re on the run. How much more of nature you can see. Just think how connected you need to be to feel the conditions under your feet. How attached you feel as you look back on that hill or trail and think, “I’ve just run over that”. Or the trust you need for your muscles and the landscape to work together to propel you uphill, or protect you as your charge down.

Really, is there a sweeter feeling than cresting the hill and looking out at what follows on the horizon knowing it’s all down hill from here? (Until you turn around, that is)

Maybe it’s just the runner’s high talking, but don’t those leaves just look a little greener when you’re running? Isn’t the birdsong brighter, cheerier? I’m sure that brook is babbling just a little more sweetly.

I’m no evolutionary biologist, but if we really were born to run, and born to hunt, then maybe our senses do just sharpen up a little once we run – so we’re ready to pounce – and with that, everything just seems a little “more”.

The magic of running in nature

So yes, this is a celebration. It’s a celebration of finding the time to get on your gear and get out. It’s a celebration of the lure of green space and of experiencing the world around it. It’s a celebration of that first run once the bluebells come up, of the crunch of snow under your shoes, and the time a rabbit crossed your path as you ran by.

We know that running is good for our mental health; whether that’s because we’ve read the stats, or we just feel it. We know how nature can invigorate, inspire, and energise us in ways little else can.

The two combined are – for me – not far short of magic.

I’m telling you this now not because you need to know it (unless, of course, you do), but because it’s good to recognise it. Be thankful for it. Know that sometimes (but I know, not always), getting out for a run and – ideally, getting out in nature – can be that difference between a bad day and an alright one.

Lonely Goat Running Club member, Tom Goodhand (IG: @tomas311)

Learn more about Mental Health Awareness Week at this link.