As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I'm a runner. I started running properly in 2017 after a couple of previous shaky attempts, and since then I think it's taught me a few things both about myself, and about mental health in general. This post is about what I've learned from running.
First thing's first - I am not a "good" runner. I am slow (really slow - not one of those "oh I'm so slow but I can run 10k in less than an hour" people, my PB for a 10k is at least 20mins more than that) and I'm not long-limbed or graceful. When I'm done with running, I don't look all glisteny and glittery - I look like a slightly angry tomato. And I'm okay with that, but it's taken me a while to get to that point. Here's what running has taught me about myself, and mental health, so far.
Push yourself but know your limits
When I first started running in 2016, I got shin splints followed by plantar fasciitis. Ouch. Once my friends had explained that yes, I actually did need a reasonable pair of running shoes and no, my six-year-old Reebok Classics weren't giving me the support I needed, the pain gradually went away and I started to run longer distances. The furthest I've run is a half marathon (that's 13.1 miles for those unfamiliar with race distances) and I genuinely thought I might die the day after. I did it because I wanted to see if I could, but I'm not sure whether I'll do it again or not.
I enjoyed training for the half marathon - I learned a lot about my body, about nutrition and rest, and about what my brain tells me in the quiet moments between breaths when I'm sure that I can't take another step and I've got another three miles before home. I enjoyed pushing myself to achieve that goal. But a marathon is a different beast entirely, and whilst I know that eventually I'll have a change of heart and sign up for one, at the moment my limit is 13.1 miles. That's enough. If I jump in at the deep end and run 18 miles, I'll crash and burn.
Equally, with something like anxiety, it's good to keep pushing against it - order your own drink in the bar rather than asking your friend to do it for you, leave the house on days when your brain is telling you that you shouldn't. But don't put yourself in a situation where you'll crash and burn, or you're likely to end up with the mental version of shin splints, and end up putting yourself out of the race for a few weeks until you recover.
Run your own race
When I ran my half marathon, I finished last. Dead last. Last as in, they'd already opened up the roads again by the time I finished and I was dodging cars. Last as in, they had started removing the signs for the race and I wasted time running the wrong way for five minutes before a volunteer re-orientated me. I'm still a little disappointed to be honest, because even though I know that it's still amazing that I finished my thoughts don't always play ball when I want them to, and I'm a bit of a perfectionist. But the most important thing is that I ran my own race. I didn't try to beat anyone else, or chase anyone down, and as a result I didn't blow up part-way round and have to walk. I ran over the line last, but I ran over it.
If you're constantly looking around and comparing your run - or your mental health - to other people's, you're likely to be disappointed. You're also likely to push yourself too hard and end up doing yourself some damage - either physically in the case of running, or psychologically if you try to pretend that you're okay when you're not. There is no point trying to run someone else's race. You can only do the best that you can do.
Help those who are struggling - it's going to be you one day
When I ran my first race (a 5k in Wigan on a rainy March day) my favourite people were a group of women from one of the local running clubs. They had a portable stereo and a bike, and were riding up and down the course handing out jelly beans and blasting "Eye of the Tiger" at full volume. It made me laugh, and possibly run a bit faster. None of those women were running the race that day but they had turned out to lend a hand to the rest of us who might be struggling, confident in the knowledge that the next time they were grappling with a tough race there would be someone doing the same for them.
So it is with mental health. If you're lucky enough to never struggle with your mental health, or if you're doing well, it's important to help those who aren't so fortunate. It doesn't have to be anything special - heck, I'm sure a portable stereo and jelly beans might be helpful for mental health on some days! - but it's good that people know that you are there for them. And although it shouldn't be the main reason to help people, it also means that if you're ever struggling, there are going to be people you can count on to give you a hand.
Know when to take a break
When I got my first proper pair of running shoes, I ran every day for two weeks and gave myself shin splints again (trust me, my marathon-running best friend has already given me the whole range of emotional reactions to this information, there's nothing you can say that he hasn't already thrown at me!). I'm...not great at moderation, but I'm learning. I didn't know when to take a break and, predictably, I hurt myself.
If you struggle with mental health difficulties, the same thing can happen if you don't use strategic breaks to their full potential. It's useful to know when your mental health is starting to go downhill so that you can plan annual leave, or a day where you don't leave the house and just watch Gilmore Girls on repeat, or take a trip to visit some friends - whatever helps. If you don't, you're likely to end up hurting yourself and needing more time to recover. Now, I only run three or four days a week - this seems to be the best number for me to stop me getting injured and to keep my baseline fitness - and I do something different on the other days of the week. That might be pilates, it might be reading a book. Either way, breaks are important.
Never give up
After I ran the half marathon I stopped running for about six months. I pretended that it was to aid my recover, but realistically that was only true for the first month. The rest of the time, it was because I was afraid. I wasn't happy that I'd finished last and I was scared to keep trying to run in case I never got any better. I didn't think I had what it takes to be a runner.
After a while, I realised that I missed running. It was helping me to be healthier, both physically and mentally, and I missed the feeling of freedom it gave me. Additionally, I was feeling more anxious and less physically fit as the months went on. I've adapted my approach (I haven't raced for a long time, and I run shorter distances more frequently than longer ones), and I'm confident that it's something that I'm going to keep doing for the long-term.
When you have a setback with your mental health, it can be tempting to just give up and give in to depression or anxiety. But that doesn't make anything better, and will only make you feel worse in the long run. Finding a way to sustain improvements in your mental health and not let setbacks define you is a cornerstone of managing any long-term condition, and it's helpful to remember that when you've pushed yourself hard and you're feeling exhausted. Take a short break to regroup, but never give up.
I hope you've found this post helpful. If so, let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects