Mind Over (half) Marathon

In many ways – this is where this blog started – running makes you feel better!

So I was very interested to see a number of things this week – starting with the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest – which summarises the current state of research on the impact of running on our brains and emotions.  Then there has been Prince Harry – talking about his own mental health difficulties and – of course – the Royals’ involvement with the London Marathon and their charity Heads Together – aimed at dispelling the stigma around mental health.  And finally, the BBC 1 two part series “Mind Over Marathon” which follows 10 people with their own stories of mental health difficulties all aiming to run the London Marathon.

So running and mental health are truly on the agenda and it would be remiss of me not to comment here.  I have saved this picture of Gill and I running at Paddock Wood to illustrate this blog as it sort of speaks for itself – here we go – off to run another 13.1 miles and we look like we’re having a party (which of course we were!).  It’s an argument that doesn’t really need to be made if you already run as, chances are, you keep running as you have discovered one way or another that running does much more than keep you physically fit.

Probably the majority of people start running either to get fit, or lose weight, or both (I certainly did!).  Recent research indicates that even a 30 minute run can add 7 hours to your life – with runners living up to 3 years longer than non-runners.  But it is usually other things that keep people running with anecdotal accounts of improved concentration, better mood and a stiller or calmer mind.  You can read the research review yourself here:

10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain

But if you don’t want to penetrate the research (it is rather dense) I can summarise it as follows:

Different sorts of running have slightly different impacts on our minds and bodies – whether you are a long slow plodder, a sprinter, an interval trainer or a runner of “ridiculously extreme long-distances”………………….  There is evidence of improved cognitive function in runners – with increased connectivity within the brain leading to improved working memory, self-control and executive function (planning and organisation) as well as cognitive flexibility (switching between tasks).  There is evidence that running changes the chemicals in the brain – leading to feelings of euphoria; running gives subjective feelings of relaxation and a “quiet mind” and helps people to regulate their emotions.  Running may lead to the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis – although this is only based on animal studies) and boost the ability to learn.  And finally, much like childbirth, running a marathon seems to wipe your memory of pain!

So increasingly there is evidence that actually backs up the belief that running is good for us.  And so I was also very interested to watch “Mind over Marathon” on Thursday evening.  Ten brave volunteers all with their own emotional challenges – hoping to run the London Marathon.  I am impressed to see men and women of all ages and from different backgrounds working together to support each other through this task.  Some people have desperately sad stories and it’s easy to empathise and understand how you might end up in the same position.  Like Rhian – who lost her baby son and then had to manage the loss of her husband a few days later by suicide.  There are those whose culture makes seeking help unacceptable.  And those where the “back story” is less obvious.  But I am struck by the number of young or old, attractive, apparently vibrant people who are crippled by sadness, emptiness and fear.  And by their courage in facing this down to take part – and deal with Nick Knowles – let alone run a marathon.  I will certainly be watching part 2 and wish them all well.  So good to give mental health issues a human face.

It is probably obvious what I think about running but here are the things that keep me going out there:

  • Friendship – running with a buddy – or with a group – is a chance to put one foot in front of another whilst feeling part of something and connected to others – relationships are what we all need to survive.
  • Being outside – and connected to the world we live in – feeling heat and cold – being dry or soaking wet – nothing better to help you feel alive!
  • Watching the turn of the seasons. Bluebells!
  • Running alone and listening to music – or even a talking book or catching up on “The Archers” – no one can “get at you” when you’re running and sometimes it provides the quiet to indulge the things that you enjoy. I love music of all sorts – but I am not sure when I would listen to it – just listen – hearing every note or every word – if I didn’t run.
  • Running kit and Sweaty Betty!
  • Yes! I completely get the brain chemistry – I never regret a run or come home feeling worse that when I set out.
  • Although I have only recently begun to see the benefits of meditation – I am struck by how I have probably been benefitting from it for most of my life as – at times when I run – my mind empties and stills and becomes quiet and peaceful (probably not when I’m listening to Meatloaf!).
  • Problem solving and generating new ideas. This may be related to the improved working of my brain.  However – as a therapist I have a special interest in EMDR – a therapeutic approach developed initially to help people process trauma.  At its simplest it asks people to focus on their traumatic experience whilst the two sides of the brain are stimulated in turn (by eye-movements or tapping their hands etc.)  It seems to me that putting one foot in front of the other is a simple form of bi-lateral stimulation and I think it helps me to process what happens in my life.

I have more to say………………….. But I’m going to watch Part 2 of “Mind over Marathon” first – so watch this space…………………  And I can’t resist a bit or Meatloaf to sign off!

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