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How Running Helps Me Cope With Depression

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

If you’d have told me two years ago that I’d be preaching about the benefits of running, I’d have told you to jog on.

For years, I was the kind of person who’d huff and make jokes whenever someone asked me if I ran. “The only running I do, is running a bath,” was a regular quip, and I say regular because people used to ask me a lot.

My twin sister Gemma was/is a successful long-distance athlete — a dedicated runner who’s represented her country countless times. She’s the sort of person who’d think nothing of running 70 miles a week, whereas I’d feel like my lungs were going to explode if I had to run 100 meters for the bus.

To me, running was a painful pursuit. Why would you do it? (Unless you were being chased?!)

However, following my mum’s suicide five years ago, I did find myself being chased — by the big “black dog” of depression. Ever since that awful, life-changing day, I’ve been forced to find ways to stay ahead. I found myself trying things that I would never have normally considered; self-medication and even self-harm in the immediate aftermath.

Never in a million years did I foresee myself as someone who would self-harm in an attempt to feel better. I never understood that kind of behavior. But it suddenly became terribly appealing as I struggled to deal with my Mum’s death.

My secret shame began to spiral out of control, and I found myself coming dangerously close to addiction at one point. Of course, it wasn’t healthy. But I needed something to help me lift the weight of grief, especially one as heavy as suicide.

However, two years ago I found strength, a subtle high, and the escapism that I craved through running — the painful pursuit that I’d previously written off.

The irony is that it turned out to be something that actually saved me when I hit my lowest ebb — feeling so numb and so empty inside that I may as well have been dead.

My sister introduced me to “parkrun,” and at first, I did it just as a novelty. The idea of me running was amusing to her (and to me I must admit), but I never thought I’d be doing it two years on — waking up early on a Saturday to eat my porridge and put myself through my paces.

I completed my first run in a time of 43:23 and it was indeed painful. I was alarmed (and almost embarrassed) by my shocking lack of fitness. My sister was the course record holder and could complete it in a swift 16:16 minutes. I couldn’t comprehend it. But I couldn’t deny that after I hobbled through the finish line, lungs burning and mouth tasting of metal, there was a sense of pride in having completed the course and seeing it through to the end. I was a part of something – and that something was good. I was a “parkrunner…”

As the weeks rolled on, I got a kick out of pushing myself to go a little quicker — a little bit further without having to stop, bringing my PB down from 34 minutes to 32 and then sub-30.

Each week, I’d stand beside the so-called “happy bell” to pose for a selfie — one which would show myself (and the world) that there was still some fight in me — a desire to achieve and to move forward — away from darkness and the suffocating blanket of depression I’d become accustomed to.

Running gave me a reason to get up — to head out of the door and into the light. When I was striding forward, I didn’t have time to dwell on the past and the painful scars that Mum’s suicide had left. There in the moment, I was focused on the task at hand — the simple pursuit of putting one foot in front of the other — breathing in the brisk energy of the outdoors. The more I ran, the more natural it began to feel and the less physical pain I felt. Although they were working hard, my lungs no longer felt like they were going to explode and the metallic taste which I’d experienced previously, was now a dull and distant memory.

My brain and my legs began to go into autopilot, and an exhilaration kicked in as I pushed past the 5K mark one (ambitious) winter’s day — those wonderful endorphins flooding my brain and encouraging me to run just a little further — further than I’d ever run before… 6K, 8K, and then finally 10!

Striding along the River Soar, I felt powerful and in control — healthy, strong, and more alive than I’d felt in years…

When I ran, I felt like a vibrant life force — one flushed with purpose, intent, and the amazing feel-good hormones that I’d come to know and love.

My eyes were open, and I wondered why I hadn’t tried this whole fitness thing sooner. Why I didn’t believe my sister when she raved about the benefits of running and treated it almost as religion.

Standing on the outside, it’s hard to understand the running mentality. Why would you run? Why choose pain over comfort — pounding the streets and clocking up K’s when you could be snuggled up on the sofa, warm drink in hand.

Running is hard, and it’s uncomfortable, especially when you start out after years of inactivity like I did. It’s painful, but then again, so is poor mental health and the pain left by suicide — more painful than imaginable.

If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know that it can strip you of everything — turn the most vibrant person into an empty, colorless shell, the world around you into a murky haze of indifference — the debilitating cocktail of grief, anxiety, and depression.

I won’t pretend that running is the only tool I’ve used to get back on track with my mental health. Antidepressants also gave me a huge leg up when it came to my recovery. They gave me the strength to get back up when all I wanted to do was sleep. But running is the thing that has brought color back to my life (and my cheeks!).

It’s given me back so many of the things that depression stole: clarity, pride, a reason to practice self-care, drink beetroot juice, and stay on top of my health. It’s given me fresh motivation — a chance to chase new goals, set new challenges, and strengthen my (broken) heart.

It’s taken me out of my comfort zone and into a thriving new community, one bursting with kindness, enthusiasm, and an abundance of endorphins.

It’s given me a reason to keep going despite the most brutal challenges — to push past pain — and life’s harsh winter in the pursuit of better days.

Originally published: April 1, 2024
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