Mental health and running

Organised by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18 to 24 May 2020. This year’s theme is Kindness – being kind and compassionate to others, but also ourselves.

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 we are sharing this article – originally published for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 – on the relationship between mental health and running.

Running has been shown to have a number of positive mental health benefits, which is the reason many of us choose to lace up our trainers and get out of the door. With Mental Health Awareness Week in mind, we wanted to explore some of these positive mental health benefits, as well as highlight potential negative effects that running may be associated with.

The benefits of running on mental health

There are various psychological and social benefits to mental health that running offers. The act of getting outdoors, getting some exercise, and achieving goals is perfect for making you feel good. For example:

  • Long-distance running can feel like meditation. Spending a long time doing a repetitive action with just your thoughts for company can help you work through any problems that may be on your mind.
  • Alternatively, you can burn through any anger you might be feeling with a short, hard blast through the park.
  • Moderate exercise can help you sleep better.
  • Hitting your goals can give you a massive sense of accomplishment and wellbeing. Success and positive progress feels good; your effort is rewarded. It’s incredibly empowering to experience that kind of self-control, where your actions bring results.
  • Running can give a sense of community. Sharing something enjoyable with other people can work wonders for your mental health.

It is this last point – about community – that Lonely Goat Running Club are particularly committed to promoting. The main aims of our community are to support and inspire each other and to achieve amazing things together. Even if you run on your own, and don’t know any runners in your immediate circle, you can still be a part of a club. We hope that every member is able to enjoy being part of a supportive, helpful, friendly, non-judgemental community.

We’re all different, but we have at least one thing in common: running. The power of community should not be underestimated. People who feel a sense of ‘belonging’ have higher levels of overall life satisfaction and higher levels of mental wellbeing.

A natural high, pain relief, and structural improvements

It can be helpful to understand the mechanisms by which your body benefits from the above. The “runner’s high” is a much-touted benefit of running, but the extent to which it exists is open to debate: It is certainly not experienced by every runner on every run, but what has been proven is that running releases chemicals that make you feel good.

Amongst the chemicals released by your body when running or exercising are:

  • Endorphins and endocannabinoids which act as pain inhibitors and enhance your sense of wellbeing. It has been proposed they are an evolutionary adaptation which made it easier for early humans to cover long distances and catch their food.
  • Serotonin, which contributes to happiness and feelings of wellbeing by balancing mood, appetite and sleep.
  • Noradrenaline (sometimes called norepinephrine) contributes to alertness, formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention.
  • Kynurenine aminotransferase regulates the amount of kynurenine – a molecule associated with stress-induced depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia – that is able to enter the brain.
  • Additionally, physical activity has been shown to promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. That is, the generation of new neurons in the part of the brain responsible for memory function and learning.

Running has been shown to be particularly effective in promoting the above chemical benefits to your mental health. Compared to participants in some other, high-intensity sports, experienced runners are able to maintain a moderate level of activity for a long time without entering an anaerobic state. That is, working fairly hard, but not so hard that you are really struggling to breathe and want to stop. This seems to be a sweet spot in which lots of beneficial physiological adaptations occur – including those that are good for your mental health.

Possible negative effects of running on your mental health

As with almost anything in life, moderation is usually the key. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and running is the same. It is helpful to be aware of the possible negative effects of running on mental health.

There can be a fine line between positive benefit and negative side-effect:

  • Feeling energised and vital – or feeling exhausted from pushing too hard?
  • A sense of achievement from hitting your goals – or feeling like a failure when they prove out of reach?
  • Healthy routine and exercise habit – or an obsession where the fear of a missed run causes stress and anxiety?
  • A resolution to eat healthily – or disordered eating?
  • A desire to lose a kilogram or two – or body dysmorphia?

Looking after yourself and others

At Lonely Goat Running Club, we love running. We want everyone to experience the positive benefits to mental health – as well as physical health – that running can offer.

However, it is important to be self-aware enough to recognise when good habits are in danger of becoming bad ones. Stay in control of your running, don’t let it control you.

If you are concerned about your mental health, or that of someone else, please seek the help of a professional or talk to friends and family. Don’t keep it bottled up. For useful resources and advice, please visit the Mental Health Foundation website.




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