Everyone deals with stress and anxiety differently, but the most effective thing for relieving stress in my life is running. While I have multiple techniques I use to deal with stress, including meditation, music and walks, running has consistently been my most effective coping mechanism, no matter what is triggering my anxiety. When I run, I can let my mind wander, process a challenging situation or completely check out and just hit the road while listening to my favorite playlist.
It’s worth nothing that while I do listen to music on some runs, I’m also an advocate of doing some runs without music or a podcast. (Whether I listen to something or not, I always carry my phone for safety reasons).
Since I got pregnant, my anxiety has resurfaced with a vengeance, which is apparently common among expecting moms. Thankfully, I’ve still been able to run throughout most of my pregnancy, once I got over a few injuries. I’m not as fast, it’s not always comfortable, and I take a lot more walk breaks these days, but I’m so grateful I’ve been able to continue with running in pregnancy (so far anyway!!) since 2020 has been quite the year. Pregnant or not, I bet your stress levels are elevated this year too.
Since we’re all dealing with increased stress these days, I wanted to share why I turn to running for stress relief and have for over 20 years.
If you’re new to running and want to take it up, be sure to check out my other running posts to help you get started or join my online running course. This post has a round-up of free running apps that may be helpful too.
While exercise — especially running — is a physical stress, it can actually help relieve mental stress and improve mental health. I’m not the only one who claims running relieves stress: there’s real science behind it. Research in lab settings has found reduced emotional reaction to artificially induced stress after people exercise (source).
Running for Stress Relief
Physical activity, multiple times a week, of any kind will help reduce stress, but I especially love running for stress relief! Here’s why.
Improves your mood
You know that thing people call a “runner’s high”? Well that’s an actual, scientific thing. When you’re doing aerobic exercise, your body releases a rush of endorphins which interact with receptors in your brain to block pain. Then, simultaneously, those endorphins trigger a positive feeling. There are studies that show the pain suppression effect is similar to effects of morphine — minus the addiction or dependence. Running also helps reduce stress hormones, like cortisol. This post talks about more about how cortisol interacts with stress. As it relates to running, remember that the right amount of exercise (which is a form of stress) will lower cortisol. Too much exercise — or too little recovery — can elevate it.
When I’m feeling stressed, I don’t always want to make the time to run, but I’ve learned that it almost always makes me feel better. And as my husband reminds me when I’m wavering about whether I should run or not, “Honey, it’s rare that you regret going on a run. And knowing you… you’ll feel better when you’re done.” I’m able to get that workout high more consistently with running than with other types of workouts. Sometimes I’ll get it with a good Peloton workout, but that’s always an indoor workout. Which leads me to my next point…
Running gives you time outside
In another scientific study, by Science Direct, researchers found that simply spending time outdoors can improve mental health. (Source) I love the outdoors and grew up spending lots of time outside, helping around my parents small farm, hiking and camping. But as an adult (and especially now that I don’t live near the mountains), I have to be very intentional about spending time outside. Running is one of the most consistent ways I do that.
If it’s a non-running day (rest days are important too!), I make sure to go on at least two walks throughout the day. The fresh air makes me feel so much better. Plus, one of the best ways to get Vitamin D is from sunshine and Vitamin D is essential for mental well being. (Source)
If all of your workouts are inside, try moving one outside, whether it’s a short run, a run-walk outing or just a brisk walk. Running forces me outside and makes me breathe in fresh air. And, if gives me a much needed break from electronics!
Promotes better sleep
When you work hard, you sleep hard. And when you sleep well, you’re more focused and less cranky and running is a great way to encourage better sleep. (Just make sure you don’t head out for a run too close to bedtime. Try to log your miles at least 2-3 hours before bed.) Accordingly to the American Institute of Stress, “When your body is experiencing chronic stress, it thinks it’s in a state of perpetual danger and that it shouldn’t be sleeping! You might be able to fall asleep but not stay asleep and you might wake up frequently in the night.” By using running to reduce stress, you’ll sleep better at night.
Improved physical health
Apart from the science of endorphins and stress hormones, running also improves your physical health. Running improves your metabolism, strengthens your heart, lowers blood pressure, and increases energy levels. (This post talks more about running for fat loss.) Compared with non-runners, regular runners have a 30-45% LOWER chance of dying from heart disease. (Source) Think you don’t need to worry about heart disease because you’re young? Read this post for signs of heart disease, even in your 20s or 30s. While you will see some benefits short-term from taking up running, with consistent, regular exercise you’ll definitely improve your health in the long run (pun intended).
Change of Scenery
Sometimes you need to change your scenery to take your mind off whatever is bothering you. And with the COVID world we currently live in, it can be hard to get a change of scenery since we can’t travel as much and many places in our towns and cities are closed or restricted. Running is a great way to get a change of scenery simply by getting out of the house! Bonus points for exploring a new trail or running route.
I love to run with friends, but there are days where I really need to run alone. Running helps me processes my thoughts. Whether I’m grieving, in an anxious spiral or have a have a big decision to make, I always try to go on a run. And I always feel better for it.
If you run, I’d love to hear which of these resonates with you most! Or, if there is another aspect of running that helps with your stress, share that too!
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