January 29, 2018

How Running Helps My Mental Health

As if I haven't said it enough over the last nine months or so, I have bipolar disorder. I'm 36, but I've had it as long as I can remember (I was misdiagnosed with depression as a kid). Through the years, my moods have always been either very "up" (hypomanic) or very "down" (depressed). I didn't even know that there was a such thing as feeling anything other than those two moods.

Sometimes the moods were mild, but sometimes they were pretty severe. I noticed that as I've gotten older, the two extremes have been more and more pronounced. And until this year, when I started the correct medication, I had a very hard time dealing with the shifts, which can last for months at a time.

I've started to notice some parallels with my moods. One of them is my weight--when I'm depressed, my weight goes up; and when I'm hypomanic, my weight goes down. The most extreme was from fall 2015 to spring 2016, where I got down to my lowest weight (121 pounds) during hypomania; and then in the few months after that, I shot up to 160 pounds during a long depressive episode.

Something else that has occurred to me recently is the effect that running has on my moods. This past year has been fantastic in that I'm no longer depressed (I've had a few short, mild episodes, but nothing like before). I took ten months off of running, because I needed the break--and the break was great.

Until it wasn't. I started feeling a little lazy and as my body got softer from not running, my body image started to go south. And my mood wasn't as good as it had been in the beginning of my break. So, I decided to start running again.

With each run, I feel genuinely proud of myself. It doesn't matter what my pace is or what my distance is, I just feel proud for doing it.

My goal is to run a half-marathon in April, and I'm following my own 13-week training plan. I'm two weeks in, and it has made a huge difference in my mood.

I haven't skipped any runs, although it was tempting for the first few days. It's been an adjustment on my routine, that's for sure. And even though I love all of the benefits of running, I don't necessarily love the physical act of running.

However, when I started heart rate training while preparing for my 10K, I really did start to enjoy running more. I learned the importance of the easy run, and I started doing my easy runs REALLY easy. Running at a slow pace is actually very enjoyable! (It made my weight drop very easily, too.)

Once I let go of the mentality that I had to push myself during all of my runs, I found the joy in it. As I'm getting readjusted to running regularly, this is something I'm working on again--slow and easy!

Having run for about 8 years (minus the last year when I took a hiatus), when I go more than two days without running, my mood starts to get worse. Nothing extreme, but I suddenly start lacking the motivation to do anything. I feel lazy and disappointed that I didn't just take 30 minutes to keep my mood elevated for a couple more days. And worse, I dread the next run terribly, even if I had been looking forward to it after a great previous run.

When my eating habits aren't so good, or my weight is up, going for a run always makes me feel like I can turn things around--that it's never too late. I feel like if I'm eating badly, AND I'm skipping runs, I'm just turning back into the 253-pound Katie that didn't eat well or exercise. That thought gives me horrible anxiety.

So, in that sense, running also relieves anxiety. I know that even if I have other things going on that make me feel uneasy and anxious, at least I did something right by going for a run. It makes me feel like I accomplished something, so it's one less thing to feel bad about when I'm beating myself up.

Goal setting is always something that has helped me mentally, too. And running is perfect for setting goals! When I was a beginner, I just wanted to be able to increase my distance. I started at just under a tenth of a mile, and then worked my way up with a goal of being able to run 5K (3.1 miles).

This was my first "sweaty selfie"

Next, I wanted to run a mile under 13 minutes. Then, under 12 minutes. And so on. I increased my distance more and more until I ran a full marathon (26.2 miles). Then I worked on speed, and got faster and faster until I ran my fastest mile at 7:31.

There are so many goals that I could set. And since my brain thrives on goal setting/achieving, running has played a huge part in fulfilling that need. Those goals can change based on where my current physical fitness level is, too.

When I was at my peak shape in 2016 and had finished my goal 10K at 49:03, I could have then chosen a more difficult goal--say, a 47-minute 10K. But I was burnt out, and didn't want to set another lofty goal.

Now, I'm out of shape after having not run in so long, so my goals are tailored to my current level of fitness. My easy pace is 12:00+ per mile to keep my heart rate where it needs to be! I'd like to build up my distance again, no matter how slow, so that I can run a half-marathon.

A good friend of mine had gotten super fast a couple of years ago; and now, she is not in the same tip-top shape as she was at her peak (even elite runners don't stay in peak shape year-round). She has been beating herself up about it every time she goes for a run, and she says she feels like she's a failure.

I used to think like that, too. When I saw my speed getting slower and slower, I was ashamed and embarrassed and I felt like I had failed. At what? Who knows. But I did learn that beating myself up about it didn't make me any faster, nor did it make me feel any better. So, I took a long break from running, and now I'm starting over (almost) from scratch.

And this time, I am not the slightest bit embarrassed of my pace. I'm showing what happens when you go almost a year without running ;)  I'm also showing just how hard it was for me to get in that 10K shape--I worked my ass off for that PR! I deserved it. And I'm super proud of that achievement.

But training like that was tough, and I didn't want to continue to train that hard forever. So, of course I'm not going to be in that kind of shape unless I'm training that way again.

It's interesting--if I went outside right now and magically ran a 49-minute 10K again, I wouldn't feel that great about it--because I didn't earn it. I haven't been training for it. The good feelings come from working hard to achieve a goal. Without the hard work, the achievement doesn't really feel like an achievement.

Overall, I'd say running gives me a sense of accomplishment that feeds my need for purpose. I want to feel like I'm constantly working at something to better myself, and nothing has done that for me quite like running has. The physical effects of running are great in that it keeps me in shape, helps maintain my weight loss, has lots of health benefits, etc.

But I'm starting to see that the mental benefits of running, along with my medication and therapy, are a great combination for treating my bipolar disorder:

Running helps with my depressive episodes because I feel like I got something done, even if it was just a short, easy run. And it gets me outside--or on the treadmill at the very least. It's a huge struggle to force myself to do it, but I have never regretted it.

Running helps with anxiety because I feel like I can turn around habits that may lead me back to obesity. It's also a distraction from the negative feelings that anxiety brings.

Running helps with my hypomania because it releases a lot of my excess energy. Most importantly, it calms my heightened senses that can be very irritating to my body--my senses all go into overdrive when I'm hypomanic, and it is so annoying that it almost makes me wish for depression again. Running makes me calmer, and soothes my nerves, at least temporarily.

Anyone else find mental benefits from exercise?


  1. I have been diagnosed with depression for quite sometime now, so I can relate to your post. For me, swimming is my outlet. It has helped me to maintain my focus and escape from the world and the frightening equipment of the gym! Keep the faith!

  2. Interesting read to see the parallels. Thank you for sharing. I took off running since buying a farm and being too busy, plus I have chronic achilles tendonosis and now foot pain! I feel soft and lazy. I'm slowly trying to run again, but find myself choosing excuses. So, like you , I decided to pursue a goal to get me out the door. I feel so much better. Thank you for you helping me to make a goal and which helps my depression so much better than meds alone!

  3. SPOT. ON! Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Yup. Running is my therapy. Went through treatment for depression for 5 years, and now off meds but fully on running. It really helps with stress-relief and the blues. I'm currently trying to not beat myself up after chasing 2 PR races (5Ks) and flubbing them. They're expensive, and it can be so frustrating to train for it and then have the day be too hot, or in the case of the one on Saturday, recovery from the flu, interfere with my goals. I really appreciate your perspective about re-framing goals, and not being in denial about what it takes to make them; just because my PR pace is slower than my friends' easy run paces doesn't mean I won't have to work for it. It also is okay if I don't PR in every race. I have to reset each year...anyway, thanks for the post!

  5. In short, yes.

    As soon as I step out of the door and feel the air get cooler as I get faster I feel better. Pounding the pavement is so freeing, and I go off into the own world, as if my mind is being coloured in, so to speak.

    Solid post!

  6. I say this often, if I didn't run I'd either be in jail or six feet under....I'm joking but there's definitely some truth in there

  7. Thank you for this post - I just found your blog and its wonderful. I was a runner for 10 plus years, even built up to a full marathon. I lost my mom 3 years ago, my running stopped, my weight piked, my depression deepened. I am now trying to get back on track starting slowly. I get so frustrated with how unhealthy I have gotten. I know though, that when I run, I am happy, my weight balances to where it should be and my depression and anxiety is so much better. This blog gave me some hope to keep on trying! thanks!


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