Therapeutic benefits: What does being a runner mean to you?
Since my last article, 'Beginning as a runner: 10 therapeutic lessons I’ve learnt in C25K', I’ve been increasingly appreciating the space for reflection, challenge, and compassion running brings to my life. In this article, I asked some fellow runners from many different walks of life “What does being a runner mean to you?” I aim to use this article to reflect on some of the themes from their responses, add some of my own, and ask you (as the reader) what your hobbies or self-care strategies bring to your life.
All people listed here have consented for their quotes to be used or paraphrased, and for their names to be used or anonymised.
Alex Sexton talked about ‘accepting the realities of life’: "I used to play a lot of sports five to six times a week (football, rowing, canoeing, cycling) then I got married, career took off, had a child and home life took over.
"Suddenly, I hit 47. My trousers became tighter, my belt had to be let out by a hole, and not being able to keep up with having an eight-year-old son who wanted to play sports. The dawn of realisation that life has taken over hit home...
"Running is my way of challenging myself to get fitter, acknowledging I’m not the 18-30 year old I used to be and accepting that I’ve got to get my arse into gear."
Most runners aren’t professional athletes, but people, like me, who were fairly sedentary and have had a decade or more off of exercise. We remember actively playing outside as teenagers and sprinting without aching muscles the next day or risking injury – when the things that take months of training and setting aside precious minutes of time were natural and just part of our lives.
Returning to exercise as an adult allows us to encounter our fragility and the reality of our age – a fragility that is masked by the demands of life and yet the realisation of an abstract time limit can add a richness and appreciation to the quality of the life we have, and a respect for the capacity of the body we inhabit.
Andy Kay said: "Imagining getting to an age where I couldn't do anything and thinking about when I could have but didn't" motivates him. This stood out for me on a run where I saw an elderly gentleman walking the same route with a limp and cane, and it filled me with this strange gratitude and appreciation that, although I’m not as fit as I was at 16, I can still run. I also felt this almost overflowing admiration for this man, as a unique human being, and it put the painting into perspective, knowing the barriers he faces with his mobility. The smile on his face almost indicated an appreciation for the moment as I jogged past and we acknowledged each other as two people journeying the same path.
Finally, I felt a sense of panic as I reflected, wondering how I would feel if injury or age were to take this hobby from me – an appreciation of the fragility of health and life. In fact, this same week I’ve been struck by a cough in my chest and haven’t been able to run, and my appreciation only grows for when I can give myself that space again.
Claire Galt mentioned, "I’m running from death". We are literally expanding our lifespans as we grow healthier. There is also that moment of escape as we push and grow our bodies and minds, alongside an acceptance that we can only stretch our capacities so far.
With death itself, it can shift our existential reality and our grief throws up questions of purpose, meaning, and the pangs of missing someone. Runners within the group have expressed their gratitude to being able to run with their grief, and compassionately allow it to express itself within the run as it needs to.
A chance to process
Life is busy, and one of the benefits is taking time just for us: whether that’s mindfulness, running, or even taking that leap to see a therapist and have that hour dedicated to you. When we are swept up in the busyness of life, time for us to process can be difficult – we’re just too ‘in it’ to reflect.
Amanda Harrison said "Running gives me head space and that is the main reason I get up and go out. Once I have my headphones on, I get lost in my own thoughts and my music. It gives me a chance to think over problems and helps me make sense of any sh*t that may be happening. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I smile and sing out loud (to the surprise of other people out!) but I get home feeling refreshed and ready to deal with any more sh*t that life has for me". A jog gives us space to allow into our awareness the thoughts and feelings pent up within us.
Amanda’s take was very similar to Nikki Jewell who said, "To me, running means a way of letting movement jumble a restless mind into order and perspective. I started running last year because Russia's war on Ukraine affected me badly - I've worked with a close team of Ukrainians since 2018 - and all through 2022 I had done no exercise at all. I was too anxious to leave the news behind and close down my computer. Moving helps assuage some that of anxiety and forces my ‘what-if, what-if’ panicky thoughts into perspective. I only run outside, and being in nature helps too. I don't listen to music, I don't think too consciously, but my mind goes into a sort of loose flow that just ends up being calming."
Ask many runners why they started. They will say things like fitness/health but the discovery of that space to reflect, which can be so helpful for our mental health, can end up surpassing the fitness benefits that may have initially motivated us. Laura Arthur said, "For me, personally it’s about the benefit to my mental health and the fitness aspect comes second. I have depression and it helps me cope along with my meds". We all need ways of practising self-care, and that comes as part of our holistic support including medical interventions alongside that time to honour our inner voice.
Time for us
Hannah Moore said,"As a busy mum and teacher, it is lovely to have that bit of quality me-time. I am proud of myself and love that my husband and children are proud of me too and encourage me". Her response was similar to Shevonna Timmins’ who said, "I am in my 40s, overweight, unfit, and struggling with depression (with a sprinkle of anxiety). Running to me is not just for getting fit, but also for the knowledge that I'm doing something to look after me. I tend to put others first, but if I'm not feeling good in myself, I can't help others - so I need to take care of me, too. It may not give me the runners' high like it used to (probably due to meds), but I make a point of patting myself on the back when I've achieved something like completing C25k".
As an introvert, I am only too familiar with the paradox that somehow spending time alone for me enables me to be more present, able to spend time with others, and to do that helpfully in a way that nourishes me. As a teacher and mum, Hannah has a lot of responsibility, and Shevonna is so used to putting others first, but in running they have found an activity they can do for them. What’s more, Hannah’s family are proud of her and Shevonna is able to truly recognise her accomplishments – when we have a lot of responsibility, we can almost pressure ourselves that we don’t matter and there is no time for us, yet somehow carving out more time for us enables us to give more and be more a part of those who matter to us.
David Hartley said "Running gives me time to myself. To be able to focus on my mental health. To reflect on what's gone badly (or well!) during that day. It's much more than the physical side of the exercise. Not that that's a bad thing, of course. Seeing my weight go down and my confidence as a runner go up! I'll never be the fastest runner, nor will I ever run long distances. And I'm absolutely delighted with that thought! It's an hour or so to recharge the mental batteries. And feel better at the end of it".
One of the things that inspired me with David’s comment was recognition of the benefits of taking time to recharge, but not having that striving to ‘be better’ (whatever that means) by constantly trying to increase pace or distance. I feel inspired by his words, that self-confidence and recharging are enough and he doesn’t need to strive for ‘better’.
Changing our perspectives of ourselves
I remember as a teenager breaking an ingrained childhood belief that I was stupid when I learnt to play chess, or even recently completing a tax return and the inspiration that comes from learning/completing something new that I felt I couldn’t. Sreeram Venkitachalam said running "gives me the confidence that if I put my mind to something, I can do it". Many of us have taken on messages at school that we’re unfit, or simply believe we cannot reach those milestones – that somehow, we’re defective. Running often has different goals we can set – whether than be to run faster or further, and there can be a change in our self-belief as we hit them and challenge the voice inside that says we are in some way limited.
Rachel von Hossell said "As a child and a young adult, I didn’t think I could run. I’d always say, if it came up in conversation, "Oh I can’t run for love nor money." Now I run. I can run. Running reminds me of how capable I am. How capable both my body and mind is, and how, should I want to, I can achieve anything (except perhaps becoming an astronaut, in another life perhaps…)". Similarly, Hannah Moore said "I always believed I couldn't run after hating PE lessons as a child. I started couch to 5k last June and I still find it hard to believe I am ‘a runner’, but I love the feeling I get during a run and at the end. I love challenging myself to go that little bit further".
Human beings aren’t static creatures. We are always seeking to improve, to understand, create meaning, grow, and challenge. Carl Rogers (father of person-centred counselling) called this' The Actualising Tendency'; the part within us that feels discomfort when things are not as we would like and strives to balance our inner and outer world, so they fit to our hope. It is human to aspire for more, and running provides a microcosm for us to realise that aspiration.
We learn to set goals, to push ourselves slightly but not too hard, and to be fluid rather than settling – ever change, ever-growing.
Claire Galt said, “The word that leapt into my mind was ‘freedom’. Freedom from constraint but also maybe from the clamour of modern life. Freedom could also mean safety (and the ability to run could also mean safety quite literally) Think fight, flight, freeze or faint (and more recently ‘please or appease’). Flight actually seems the safest and least self-compromising safety mechanism during danger". In the same way that a martial artist is learning self-control, they are also learning to defend themselves, and that defence keeps them safe if there was a fight. Likewise, being able to run away could literally keep us safe in a conflict, and emotionally, flight from conflict is often the most adaptive way to cope if we cannot avoid that conflict or control it.
Melissa Parramore said"…if I’m upset or angry, I get all this pent-up adrenaline that I don’t know what to do with and make very impulsive and reckless decisions. I have instead started running to get out that energy. It stops the shaking and pounding the pavement helps me to let it all go and return in a much calmer state so I can continue with my day. It turns me into someone who can cope better with life, in a much healthier way. It gives me energy to get things done in the day and for the duration of my run, I don’t have to think. I just zone out with my music and let my body feel the magic".
I have often spoken to people who have ran when they are angry, and running can give us a vehicle to channel our emotions and challenges that is safe to us and less harmful than some other ways we can use to cope with strong emotions. Likewise, if things such as self-harm, substances, binging, or other coping mechanisms that can sometimes harm us/those around us are becoming our defaults, could we use a self-care activity (like running) to channel them and meet some similar needs?
Claire’s word of 'freedom' really stood out for a few respondents. Jane said, “It's a chance to escape and not have to think about anything but my run”. Tracy Kuhn said "For me, being a runner means freedom and space, both mentally and physically. Just setting off and running almost gives me that invincibility I had as a child, when you think nobody can touch you, when you just ran for the thrill of it, although at 51 I also now run for the health benefits, and so my dodgy old knees don’t seize up completely... It’s similar to swimming for me and a kind of meditation, I just keep moving forward and that somehow helps put my thoughts in order, the repetitiveness helps with that. I had a bereavement last summer and I didn’t run for a couple of months, but running is definitely one of the things that have helped me through these first 6 months; I might wake up feeling horrible but by the time I’ve got back from a run I feel better, capable, more alive and I know I can get through another day".
Concerning bereavement, in 1995 Stoebe and Schut developed a model of bereavement called the Dual Processing Model, which said that when we are grieving we oscillate between loss (the pangs of grief, missing the person, and navigating a world without them) and restoration (distraction, activity, adaption, finding new meaning in life and relationships, and the general demands life puts on us). This really stood out for me within Tracy’s answer of how running had helped her process her bereavement. From a restoration orientation, running provides a distraction, challenge, community, and alternate space for our focus rather than our loss. From a loss orientation, running allows the brain to think and opportunity for us to be mindful of those thoughts or feelings that arise. Furthermore, they are contained within the run, and refocusing on the body running provides an anchor when feelings become overwhelming.
Helen Nolan said,“The connection of finding new friends of a similar tribe is a bonus… I think it’s helped me to be more interested, less ‘judgy’ and more accepting of so many different people at different stages doing different things for different reasons but all out there running!”I echo Helen’s sentiment in the supportive running community. Some of us are beginners and some are more experienced. As we develop, we remember what it was like to be a beginner, and in so doing share our experiences of what might help someone.
Seeing people as different and on a journey, rather than something to compete with. I benefit from being able to be advised and supported by others, but also in being able to give that same advice and support – it meets our needs and can meet others in expressing our vulnerability.
Some people run in groups and have met friends through it or sign up for regular events like weekly Parkrun 5k races. Personally, for me, it’s more on the freedom/reflection side, but the social crops up when I do events with others. Tracy Khun is similar and said,"I do it on my own, but I also feel part of a community. Runners support each other and seem genuinely thrilled when someone else falls in love with it" balancing that ability to do something for you but also be part of a community in doing it.
Challenge and compassion
Running can lead to challenging ourselves. This might mean running further, pushing our pace, racing, or just going out on those days when we don’t fancy it. This can be healthy in our hobbies and provide a sense of mastery that can be quantifiable. It can also lead us to leave the present moment to fantasise about a ‘better’ future, lead us to despondence if we compare ourselves to others when "comparison is the thief of joy" (Teddy Roosevelt), diminish our compassion towards ourselves, and risk injury or being cruel over our own expectations. Helen Nolan described it as “Finding the balance between challenge and pushing myself too far - that Goldilocks zone the ethereal unicorn that it is!”.
I find running a great way of noticing my internal dialogue when different parts of me are speaking. A part that wants to be faster and pushes, a part that wants to be mindful or reflective, a part that wants to give up or is self-critical. Noticing this internal dialogue within the safety of a jog enables us to see our expectations of ourselves and gives us the opportunity to practice kindness to ourselves and recognise our limits. It also enables us to observe those voices and listen to different voices such as our body or feelings. Recently I have had a cold and had to listen to words I have told myself – to respect my body when it is not capable on a given day and needs to rest. Likewise, some days our muscles ache, we are carrying stress, have injuries, or lost our breath and we have a chance to practice compassion and slow our pace or even skip a run.
Being a runner
Sharon Lam brought up how comfortable we might feel with that title of "runner" and what it means to be one – do we need to run a certain distance, be competitive, or do it X times a week? Is it something that needs to be earned, or can we just choose it? It brought up powerful things around labels, and what defines our identity or being ‘good enough’. For me, I am happy with that title, not because I’m special at it, but just because I derive meaning and pleasure from it – running serves me rather than defining me.
There was something liberating, however, when I reached a point where I felt able to claim being a runner as a title – even in my imperfection at it. That in itself is therapeutic, to say “I am enough”.
I’d be fascinated in the comments to know about your hobbies – whether that’s running or something totally different, and the meaning those hobbies provide for you and your life. If you’ve read this article and would like to work with me, I’d also love to counsel you into finding meaning in different aspects of your life that are unique and empowering for you.