Running it Out: using speedwork to help manage your mental health

I’ve been watching a lot (like really a lot) of Grey’s Anatomy recently, it’s my new obsession. Life on Grey’s anatomy is beyond dramatic, but when they have a really rough patch (and believe me we’re talking serious life or death stuff here) they ‘dance it out’.

Now I’m a terrible dancer, so this isn’t something that’s going to work for me, but I do find it really useful to ‘run it out’.

Christmas is not an easy time of year for everyone. In fact, contrary to what we see on social media, I suspect it’s actually a tough time of year for an awful lot of people. With a December due date, I had imaged this being our first Christmas with our beautiful new baby. Instead, there’s no baby, and I’m working nights, sole-charge, for the duration of the holidays. Reality is often out of synch with what we dream about, but this one feels like a pretty big let-down.

Annoyingly, I had been feeling a whole lot better about stuff since running my marathon in October (you can read about that here): it had felt like the end-point in my recovery process. So it was a bit of a shock when Christmas rocked up, and I suddenly found myself battling all these emotions all over again. And then beating myself up about that, as I obviously hadn’t made as much progress as I’d thought. And then worrying I was going to ruin Christmas for everyone else.

Last week I was asked to present a webinar on how exercise has helped me as a vet in practice, and one of the things I spoke about was how running can mean something totally different each day. It can be time on your own, or a great way to socialise; a form of relaxation, or a way to challenge yourself; and it can be time to think, or time not to think at all. It’s this last point that I’ve been really reflecting on as I’ve found it hard again managing my feelings while I’m running.

Exercise and wellbeing in veterinary practice

Running has always played a huge part in my well-being, and no more so than when I was recovering from my miscarriage. But I found when I got closer to the marathon everything overwhelmed me a little, and I really had to battle my emotions during my training. On the worse runs I was often fighting back tears, and the combination of this and being out of breath resulted in some quite scary panic attacks.

When I was training for the marathon, the majority of my runs were at an easy pace, which is a great time to think as your body settles into an easy rhythm and your mind can really wander. If you want to ponder one of life’s big issues, take yourself for a nice long easy run! But for me anyway, these aren’t the runs that help when I’m feeling anxious or low; in fact I think the experience of being outside, in nature, using my body was one of the things that heightened my emotions to the point that I struggled to control them during my training.

In the webinar I used the example of speed sessions as an unlikely ‘relaxation tool’ to switch your mind off by doing something that pushes your body to its max, meaning you haven’t got the space or energy to think about anything else at all. This might be a bit backwards to what you imagine you need when you’re having a hard time, but it is something that I have found really useful. This morning I had a bit of a melt-down about how we were going to manage Christmas, so instead of the easy run I’d planned, I made myself a little speed session:

1 mile warm-up; 1 mile at target 5k pace, 2 minutes walk recovery; repeat to a total of three fast miles; 1 mile warm down.

And I loved it! I have been feeling a bit depressed that I have totally mislaid my speed since marathon training, so it was something I was really excited to work on again. Having a goal to the session meant I was thinking about the running as I was warming up, rather than getting caught up in all of the things I’ve been worrying about and letting that take over.

Once I got going on the fast section my brain totally shut off. As I prepare to really go for it I like thinking about how we are evolved to do just that. Our flight instinct knows when we need to divert energy away from our highly developed cortex in our brain, and towards our more basic organs: our muscles. It’s an ancient process, and something I think we can really use as runners when managing anxiety and difficult emotions. Sometimes to switch off your mind you need to force your body to redirect it’s resources somewhere else. By the time I was finished and my brain was beginning to turn itself on again it was already flooded by all those lovely endorphins, as well as a sense of satisfaction in what I’d achieved. Like zoning out, only to zone in again in a much better frame of mind.

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So next time you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed, whether it is stress, anxiety, grief, or any of the other things we can face at Christmas (or of course, any other time), why don’t you think about ‘running it out’?

8 thoughts on “Running it Out: using speedwork to help manage your mental health

  1. Hey! Congrats on completing your marathon! That’s a huge accomplishment. I’m sorry that this time of year has been particularly difficult for you, considering your hopes and expectations just one year ago. It’s okay to grieve and I don’t think there can really be a timeline for when it should stop because everyone deals with loss in their own unique way. I do agree with you that running can be a great way to get your mind off of things. When I run at my fastest, I’m just trying to make sure I breathe. I can never do it for too long, but I do feel like a superstar right after. And you’re right, you feel great afterwards.

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  2. Well done on the marathon. Having been injured recently, I have struggled to cope with my anxiety and stress and have ended up off work. I agree completely with your analysis of how running can mean and do different things for you. It’s great to be able to think about everything or nothing at all, or lose yourself in a hard intervals session. Thank you for posting and keep on running!

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    1. That’s really tough.. I always find my mood drops when I can’t exercise, whatever the reason. With injury it’s the worst though because you know exactly what you should do to help yourself but you can’t! I try break down why running helps and see if I can get that through other things.. namely some kind of cardio (can you swim or cycle or even just do a targeted strength work out)? And make sure you still find time to get outside, even if it’s a walk or just a chair depending on your injury! It helps me anyway.. I hope you feel better soon x

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  3. Just wanted to say I love your tweets and blogs. Running for me is what brings physical and mental health together. If I need motivation to get out I just think about how I always, always feel better afterwards – often that feeling lasts the whole day.

    I’ve been doing more interval running lately as I want to get a bit faster. I can’t say I enjoy it as much as a slow steady run – but next time I go I’m going to be thinking about this article.

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    1. Thank you so much – I think you’re absolutely right about the ‘connection’ aspect.. and it’s not just mind and body is it, I find running makes me feel connected, and grounded, with nature too..

      It’s certainly useful writing down how it makes you feel, helps me go out when I don’t want to!

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