Simon Keller

Running for (and against) Mental Health

I work as a university lecturer, and I occasionally have students mention to me that they are runners, and that they’ve heard that I am a runner too. Usually I try to change the subject quickly, before they ask me about my best times (“Oh. I thought maybe you were fast”) and before I tell them that they should join Scottish (“So that’s $175 for an A+?”). But a conversation with one student went on long enough to turn to the reasons why we run, and he told me that he was running as a way of dealing with a mental illness. He said that he hoped that keeping to a routine of regular running would help him concentrate on his studies and complete his degree. 

The idea that running is good for mental health is familiar to many of us. I love running partly because it is peaceful and helps me keep the rest of my life in perspective. When every other part of my day has gone badly, I can still look forward to a good run. Training for a race gives me a goal and a sense of purpose, and standing on the start line I can live right in the moment, focusing completely the only thing, right then, that matters. 

In seeing running as a form of mental therapy, my student was part of a growing global movement. On running websites and in running magazines, it is increasingly common to see articles about the benefits of running for a wide variety of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse. England Athletics, in association with the charity Mind, has launched a campaign promoting regular running for its benefits for mental health.

Reflecting on my relationship with running, and apparently with some scientific support in the background, I am tempted to believe that running is the best medicine there is, and that everyone should run. I am tempted by the evangelical attitude to running that I find on some running blogs and in the pages of some running magazines. But that is not how it worked out for my student. A few months after our first conversation, he told me that he was still running, but the enjoyment had gone. Shortly after that, he suspended his studies and we dropped out of touch. There is a more disturbing side of the story about running and mental health. Too often, running turns out not to be the solution to our mental health problems, but rather the symptom, and sometimes even the cause. 

Running has a habit of making promises it cannot keep. When you play tennis, you start as an uncoordinated mess, looking nothing like Serena Williams or Roger Federer. Slowly but steadily, your skills improve, and the more you practice the better you get. Over years, you gradually become able to play the shots, then the points, then the games, that make you feel just a little bit like Roger or Serena. 

When you take up running, in contrast, you have the basic skill already, and so long as you can get yourself into your running shoes and out the door, your improvement is likely to be quick and dramatic. Every week you can train harder and every race is better than the last. You feel more and more like an elite runner and you glimpse a future of unlimited potential – until one day, perhaps after six months or a year, you get your first major injury, or you become exhausted, or you simply stop getting faster no matter how hard you train. A common pattern among runners involves an extended period of increasing enthusiasm followed by a sudden crash, sometimes leading the runner to leave the sport feeling bitter and frustrated.

There are other ways in which running, compared with other sports, presents dangers for mental health. A great advantage of running is that training is easy; a disadvantage is that obsessive training is easy too. Most runners can gain short-term improvements from losing weight; but a short-term weight-loss strategy can become a long-term disorder. The thrill of racing is that it is intense, individual, and public; but many adults will not run competitively because their childhood memories of racing are of pressure, embarrassment, and fear.

The connection between running and mental health is real, but it is complicated. I love running and I believe that it improves my mind and my life in all sorts of ways. But I am uneasy about the idea of running as therapy, and I worry that too much is being made of the temporary benefits of running for mental health, at the expense of some of the possible long-term costs. For some people, in the longer term, running can reinforce the very obstacles it is intended to overcome. I suppose that this is obvious when you say it, but just because running is good for me, that doesn’t mean that it will be good for everyone. Running can be a friend, but it is a devious friend, and when you start running, it is good to know what you are facing.

I eventually caught up with that student, several years later, when he again enrolled in one of my classes. This time he lasted the term and he passed. He had got his life together, was heading steadily towards graduation, and had given up running.