You only need to pop a search into Google regarding running and mental health or hop on to YouTube and watch the many videos uploaded by ultrarunners, or even ask someone at a local Parkrun, to see there’s a pattern.
Many endurance athletes discovered running when they were at their lowest point in life. Mental Health issues have a way of making you feel alone, worthless, drained and can even lead to other types of physical illnesses. It manifests itself around you in a shroud of darkness you think only you are affected by.
But over recent years research has shown that exercise is a great tool to battle ailments such as anxiety and depression. Running for instance, can control stress and boost the body's ability to deal with existing mental tension, difficulties with sleep and dwelling on negative thoughts. With that comes aided relaxation, less worry, anxiety and negative thinking cycles. Seems like an instant win, but it doesn’t just make it go away, it’s something that takes time to control. The mind is a super computer, and it can take a lot of work to rewire it.
I discovered this all for myself back in 2015 when I was 26.
I was working an office job which I’d been in for over seven years and one day noticed I always had a cold, upset stomach and headaches. I thought I had a terrible immune system, even family told me “you’re always sick!” and I would catch anything people around me had. It got to a point where I noticed I had been sick for six consistent months and decided to go and see a GP, they ran numerous blood tests, asked questions, prodded and scanned my body and found nothing. I was physically fine.
It was only a few months after this that I then started not being able to breathe in work and I began having panic attacks, I felt uncomfortable being around groups and began to skip spending time at social events, my body began to feel like it didn’t work, and I felt compressed. I then didn’t know what to do and it was really affecting my attitude, I would arrive at work and book the day off and go home immediately to do nothing. Until I decided to go back to my GP and tell them what was happening, as I walked in, they asked “So, what’s the problem?” and I broke down crying and said I didn’t know.
It was then explained to me. Turned out I’d had anxiety and depression for a while and just hadn’t known. I’d always considered myself mentally strong and had the typical men’s way of looking at depression and found it hard to now be told I was depressed, I took that as I was being told I was mentally weak.
I was put on medication, which I didn’t like, and was having therapy every so often, but still found myself having constant panic attacks until I decided to make some changes. Two months after the diagnosis I skipped the medication, began eating healthier and decided to run a half marathon to force myself into a scenario with a huge crowd.
I was at the start line with my girlfriend and was freaking out, it was the largest group of people I’d ever been in. Once the start line opened, I ran, I didn’t see it as running a race at first, it was more I was running away from everyone behind me and was looking for openings in the crowd. I hadn’t trained or seen any race event before, so it was all new to me, but my mood began to relax, and I started to have fun. I ended up running it in 1hr 55mins and had such a rush afterward that I signed up to do it again the next year. I left my job three months after, which through therapy, I had noticed was one of my triggers for my anxiety and took up running while searching for a new job.
I also found out that a friend I’d worked with had been having the same difficulties as me and took his own life. That hit me in the face, it was something that had shown me I’d gone in the right direction and made me realise if I hadn’t made those changes, it was a path I could have fallen victim to. After that I’d do anything I could to help other’s through similar issues. It was the race event that changed my life, and so I wanted to help others on the same journey.
I’d started in a new job, I had a gym membership and was running a half marathon each year while adding smaller runs to the event calendar. But that wasn’t enough, so I became a trained Mental Health First Aider, then began helping charities while taking on challenges. First, I joined up with the Movember Foundation to run the MoRun 10k while wearing a 20lbs weighted vest and raising funds. I then ran a half marathon in the vest again to promote the importance of acknowledging mental health issues and speaking out about them and taking relevant action. I’ve also completed a virtual Ironman 70.3 (5k run, 90k cycle, 21k run) in the weight vest during while wearing the vest, it’s all to show people that no matter how hard something can feel at a certain time, you can get through if you’re willing to work for it and that being open and positive makes a huge difference.
If I ever have a bad day, on the rare occasion’s anxiety may creep back up, I’ll run, lift, bike, swim, climb and hike. Exercise can truly keep the mental demons at bay, fit into a healthy lifestyle it can literally save your life.
Seeing how far I’ve come from who I was, I have a constant drive to keep going and doing what I love. I’ve had moments like everybody who puts themselves through endurance events where I’ve broken and wanted to quit. Two marathons I ran physically broke me down, but I’d built up such a determined mentality that I wouldn’t allow myself to quit and got through them both, limping and almost in tears. That doesn’t stop me from returning the next year and either taking on the challenge again or pushing for something more difficult. It’s almost as if putting ourselves through physical hardships moves us further away from the mentally vulnerable person we felt we’d been at one point. When I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I thought I was mentally and physically weak, I forced myself to change my life and enter the fitness world which has helped make me physically and mentally stronger than I ever imagined. Soon I’m taking on the 2020 Virtual London Marathon and the 2021 London Marathon for children’s mental health in a project for a charity.
That’s my story of running and mental health, but there are thousands out there with similar stories. People who have suffered for a lot longer and through a lot worse than what I went through. I class myself as one of the lucky ones to get out quickly. And though depression tries to separate you from the world and make you feel as if you’re trapped, there’s a whole community out there putting themselves through amazingly horrific challenges to help aid, encourage and raise others. The endurance world has so many people with similar stories all uniting for the same reasons, to fight back against hardships, and to have as much fun as possible.
If anyone is ever struggling with mental health issues, there are now plenty of places to seek help and information, and there is a world of runners out there waiting to welcome a new smile at the finish line.