December 31, 2019

Running for (my) Mental Health


Happy New Year to all you out there reading this blog!

Given 2020 is here, I’ve been thinking a lot about a topic central this blog – running. Why I do it, and why I keep coming back to it.

Running, like any activity, has its strengths and weaknesses. Mention running to a former runner and you’re likely to get an earful about injuries -- knee problems, Achilles tendonitis, IT band inflammation, hamstring pulls, sprained ankles or plantar fasciitis. The list goes on and on.

As one who’s experienced all of these injuries and more, during races but most often during overambitious training runs, I have to confess that 99.9% of the time it wasn’t the running that caused the injury, it was me, the runner. Like fire, running can burn you if you don’t respect it. And I’ve been burned more than I would like to admit. When you play with fire, you get burned.

But what would life be without this flame?

Over the years, I’ve struggled to find anything more accurate as a measurement of my strengths and weaknesses. When I step to the line of an ultra, everything I’ve done in the months leading up to that moment, unmistakably, becomes real. There are no excuses. No alibies. Nothing but 100 miles between me and the finish line. That, to me, is ominous. And it draws me back in. Every time I think about trying something different.

In business, people can become obsessed with competition. Doing deals, making money, and driving revenues higher and higher. Growth for the sake of growth. Beating the next guy. Becoming number one! But that culture will ultimately lead to destruction. Because growth, like everything in this world, needs its yang. With every up, there comes a down, and every success, comes failure. Most businesses don’t prepare for that day. Running is similar, because there are the inevitable lows that come with the highs. I try not to forget this, although I often do. 

It’s easy to point out the risks of running, but what about the rewards? After all, we humans have been engaging in this activity for thousands of years, well before the advent of orthotics or Advil.

Research shows that running and exercise can provide a healthy, stimulated mind that can defend itself against the onslaught of societal pressures. When running there are regions of the brain that are stimulated that overcome the stress you feel from work, school, family or even the dentist office.

These regions include the limbic system (regulates motivation and mood), the amygdala (controls the fear reaction to stress, or fight or flight), and the hippocampus (directs memory formation, mood and motivation).[1] According to PubMed report, running (along with other forms of aerobic exercise “improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.”

What I know if this. When I’m running I feel alive, energetic and full of optimism. Life seems more colorful. When I’m not running I feel lethargic, drab and a bit cantankerous.

To run, or not to run in 2020? That is the question. I know what my answer is. What is yours?

[1] Exercise for Mental Health, A. Sharma, MD, V Madaan, MD and F Petty, MD, Ph.D., Pub Med ___ date.