This is a tough one for me to write, but I think it’s a topic that’s avoided far too often because of its toughness. And we need to talk about it. Talking about it will help.
It is well documented that physical activity has a positive effect on our mental health. Terms such as ‘runner’s high’, ‘in the zone’, or ‘in flow’ are commonly used to describe this phenomenon when it comes to running. Therefore it’s a great stress reliever, and certainly can make a very bad/stressful day that much more manageable.
This is great, but what about the really big things? For me, running has been my sanctuary in times of stress and turmoil. Looking back, it’s running I’ve had to thank for not getting ‘in too deep’ when it comes to my mental health. (Another runner who found running cured her depression).
I’m not a doctor, nor a mental health specialist, so I will not try to claim a thorough understanding of every mental health condition. I am, however, an exercise referral qualified personal trainer, and some of the conditions that people can be referred to me with are depression, anxiety and stress.
When I was on the course learning about these conditions, the instructor made a very pertinent point, that he didn’t believe there was anyone in the world who wouldn’t go through depression at some stage in their lives. And this could be triggered by the very things we all go through at some stage or another – job loss, relationship breakdown, serious illness of ourselves, serious illness of a loved one, death of a loved one.
I’d experienced almost all of these by the time I was 26, and frankly, if it wasn’t for staying physically active on a regular basis, I could have been in a very different mental state when the worst of these things happened.
One in four British Adults experience one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year (ONS, 2001). The most common mental health condition in Britain is mixed depression and anxiety, with almost 9% of people meeting the criteria for diagnosis (ONS 2001).
I’m writing this as a lifeline to those who are going through tough times at the moment, and perhaps as a guide to those who aren’t, and don’t understand these conditions. Many I know personally are dealing with grief right now.
And a friend of mine recently lost his fight with depression and took his own life. This is the reason for writing. I didn’t even know he suffered from the disease. We don’t talk about it enough. Its brushed under the carpet, and often a whole lot of judgement comes alongside it.
Yet again, I must stress that I’m not a medical practitioner and cannot give advice on the subject, but what I can do is speak from my own personal experience of hard times and how running helped and how it hindered. So, here’s my story:
In April 2012, my dad passed away 20 months after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Whilst his passing was expected, and in many ways a relief (he wouldn’t be in pain, but try not to feel guilty wanting this!), there is no way that losing a parent doesn’t affect you. My running and my father’s illness have been linked in my mind, as it was a very strange sequence of events that got me my place in my first London marathon in April 2011, and I found out about the place very shortly after we found out about Dad’s diagnosis.
Training for that first marathon was extremely difficult – I remember wanting to spend as much time as I could with my dad, but I was living and working in London at the time. This meant my weekends were almost always spent on the train back home to spend the day helping my parents, before getting the train to London on Sunday morning, to then do my long run in London on Sunday afternoon/evening. Occasionally I would do the run from my parents, but this was rare. What this meant was I was always exhausted by the end of the weekend, and not particularly ready to start work on the Monday.
BUT, those long runs were the only time I really got to spend alone, and these feelings around my dad’s illness needed a lot of reflection time. People around me were as helpful as they could be, but much like depression, terminal illness isn’t really understood by many. The fact that it couldn’t be cured. Having to console those whose dad wasn’t dying, because their words, said in kindness, couldn’t help me.
We don’t talk about it.
We don’t understand it.
I realise now, as I’m writing this, that I have just spoken about 6 months of my life when my world completely changed, and neither in my description, nor when I really think about it, can I tell you exactly how I felt. This is part of the problem in the modern age. How could I deal with what were likely quite negative feelings if I can’t even identify them?
The London Marathon was a wonderful day and my dad came to watch, and made the effort to spot me in multiple places. A few weeks after that race, I moved to where I live now to be closer to my parents and make my weekends a little more bearable. That same weekend, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me. How could I grieve that relationship, when I was already grieving losing my dad?
Running of course!
Unfortunately, now I had to factor in a longer commute, I became a bit of a ‘weekend warrior’ with my running. A very common mistake, as it’s virtually impossible to make any fitness gains if you leave 5-6 days between each training session. And if I missed one long run, it could be 13-14 days between training sessions. Unsurprisingly (knowing what I know now), this lead to an injury, and 4 weeks before the Berlin marathon, I got such a sharp pain in my knee on an 18 mile long run (I was 11 miles in), that I had to walk the rest of the way home, and I didn’t run again until the day before I travelled to Berlin.
My knee and ankle on that leg reacted badly to the race, and there was a lot of swelling of both joints. Again, unsurprising given the poor build-up to the race.
The real stupidity, though, was when I was preparing for the NYC marathon in 2012.
Wonderfully, I met my now husband just a few months before my dad died. We would go to the gym together, and I had a personal trainer who I saw once a week. However, as soon as my dad died in April 2012, I dropped all of this, until 16 weeks before the NYC marathon – the typical ‘survival plan’. Do nothing, until you start the plan, and then ‘survive’ through the plan to get to the start line.
The problem was, I went from zero exercise, very high stress and anxiety, not enough sleep – typical feelings of grief, to ‘I’m going to train 5 days a week for a marathon’.
Such is the nature of trauma (whether mental or physical), that you are desensitised to a lot of things. So I didn’t notice the warning signs of my knee injury. There is no way it came on as suddenly as I noticed it. This isn’t how running injuries work, but nonetheless, I had become a slave to my training plan, as it was the only sense of control I had in my life at that time when the absolute worst had happened.
Looking back, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, having a training plan to stick to, but doing a marathon just months after my dad had died when I was very inexperienced was a real danger. I didn’t have the experience to be able to cope with the training volume at that time, when I was well below my best level of health.
The knee pain I had never dealt with on my previous marathon campaign came back, as I never strengthened the weakness that caused it, and a compensatory injury developed in my other leg – a calf tear. This was too painful, and completely impossible to run through. And to top it all off, I was only just becoming used to how to manage my recently diagnosed asthma.
We still went to New York to run the marathon, and I was terribly prepared. I hadn’t run further than 14 miles in well over a year, and I had barely run at all in the preceding two months. This was the year of Hurricane Sandy though, and as such, the race did not go ahead. My legs were quite happy about this, but I dread to think what could have happened to me if the race did go ahead and I’d tried to run it.
I have no doubt that I would have ended up needing treatment in hospital. This is just how much my grief at the time stopped me from being sensible. There are always other races, but I only have one body to live my life with. After this, I started treating it a bit better, and it was shortly after this trip that I set the goal of running the Boston Marathon. But I was only able to work toward this as I began to work on the other parts of my health that needed addressing.
Based on my experience, here’s what you can do about your running if you are suffering hard times, and fear you may be suffering from a mental health condition.
#1 If you are struggling to cope, GET HELP. A few weeks before my dad’s passing, I was having real trouble sleeping, so I saw my GP. A few months after he passed I hit some real blocks that I couldn’t logically think my way out of, and I was becoming impatient with myself for how I would cry and not be able to stop. Frankly it was affecting my functionality. – I was harsh on myself, but I sought counselling. Sometimes it just takes someone with an objective view to guide you past a difficult time.
The worst thing you can do is try to solve it all yourself – other cultures have quite open grieving, but we don’t, so it’s understandable that you may think of keeping everything to yourself, but to put it glibly, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.
#2 Running is a great stress reliever, but be mindful of how your mental health can affect your physical health. Don’t stop completely, but perhaps modify your goals.
When we learnt about prescribing exercise for those with depression, we were guided that it was better to focus on ‘process goals’ rather than ‘outcome goals’. So rather than aiming for a sub 1 hour 10k, the goal can be, I’m going to run 3 times a week.
It’s important not to let your running become an additional stressor, especially if you’re going through tough times.
#3 Take a break. Sometimes, the stress of always trying to improve can add to the other stresses of life, so why not try something different? I also did my first triathlon the year my dad died. I had no pre-conceived ideas of how I should be, so I just did the training and completed it. Whilst the swim was horrible, it was pretty cool to be trying my hand at something new.
And finally, here are a couple of resources that have helped me with coming to terms with my friend’s death recently. The first one talks about how our culture hides sadness away, and really spoke to me, after what I experienced, not being able to identify feelings, let alone feeling them.
The second one, states that depression is a disease of civilisation, much like heart disease or diabetes. One of the things we can use to help us deal with modern life is to do things to help others, to volunteer, and this is where running can be great. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that GoodGym Colchester is launching in a few weeks. You can sign up here, and not only help others on your runs, but also help yourself by giving your runs some purpose.
What about you? What advice would you have for others going through tough times at the moment? Or if you are going through a tough time and feeling sad, how would you like to be treated?
Post in the comments below. Let’s talk about it.
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Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.