Running and depression: An alternative perspective

Cat playing skittles

Warning: This post might be a bit serious at times. For light relief please refer to this very old photograph of a kitten playing skittles.

Most runners I know have picked up at least one running magazine in their time, or logged onto at least one running-themed online forum.

Actually most runners I know won’t have done this once – they’ll have done it a lot.

Actually if you’re anything like me, you’ll pretty much always have three running-oriented tabs, one cycling tab (and Facebook) open behind your work emails, and the latest copy of Runners’ World (that you swore you would stop buying because it’s getting dull) ready for your lunch break.

These magazines tend to churn out similarly themed articles. I don’t say that as a bad thing, nor do I mean to imply that it is something individual to the health and fitness market by any means – because it’s not – but I do think that it is interesting to note the themes that do get churned over and over again, but with few, if any, alternative perspectives thrown into the mix.

I picked up the new issue of Women’s Running magazine today. I stopped reading it about a year ago because it was getting a bit soft and dull for my tastes (bizarrely I have no interest in reading about how to keep up with my runner-boyfriend), but I decided to pick it up again as part of my new laisez-fair attitude towards life (which I’ll return to later). When I got home I unpacked my shopping (hair-dye, nail varnish, magazine, baked beans) and took the magazine to the bathroom with my hair-dye for some undisturbed age-avoidance activity. There, one of the cover stories caught my eye: “Running helped me lose 4 stone and overcome depression”.

Here we go again, I thought.

Running – and indeed any kind of physical activity – is now recognised by medical and psychiatric folk as being hugely beneficial for people who suffer with mild to moderate depression (or ‘low mood’ as it gets called by the docs). It’s benefits are varied.

Behavioural benefits in their simplest forms work as thus: Low mood can lead to low activity levels, which can amplify the low mood, which leads to less activity… Taking a stand and going for a walk or a jog can help break this very unhealthy cycle. Running, walking, cycling – any kind of simple exercise is a great way to break negative patterns of behaviour because there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing it, no ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ to worry about. You just fucking get on with it.

Physiological benefits are also well reported and documented, and have lots to do with hormones and chemicals and stuff that I am totally unqualified to even start writing about. But any runner who has experienced that ‘high’ after a training run can believe that there is a lot of truth in these claims also.

However, the rarely documented fact is that exercise has no real recorded benefits for people suffering with moderate to severe depression, which is what I went trundling off to the GP with last summer (actually I went to the GP with insomnia, but after some gentle poking on his part I emotionally vomited all over him and he helped me face the fact that most people did not go through their days as I had become accustomed to over the years previous).

So why, dare I have asked, had I not been able to tackle my ‘low mood’ sooner? Far from being inactive, I was a hive of frickin’ activity. By the time I broke last summer I was in the middle of marathon training and plodding my way merrily through 30 miles a week. Indeed running was the only thing I really gave a shit about. Nothing else had been working out – my zero-hour work contract was exploitative and stressful, my dozens of job applications were going nowhere, my relationship had ended, my bank account was barren despite shifts in the local – but my running was going really well! And it had been going well for a while, as documented on this blog. I wrote weekly, sometimes more, analysing my training sessions and rabbitting on about my upcoming training plans. But as the shitty feelings got harder to distract myself from, it got harder to write. I didn’t enjoy it anymore. And do you know what? I didn’t like running either.

Running had stopped being my hobby. It was no longer my respite from reality. It was the only thing I felt I had going for me (which is quite frankly ridiculous) and this blog has long been an integral part of my running. I started writing not long after I started training, and keeping a journal like this has really helped me maintain focus and improve.

But as the depression worsened and the mental fog in which I was lost thickened I could no longer just run. Every run had a purpose, carefully rationalised into my weekly training, carved into my daily routine, justified by the sense of purpose that it gave me. I no longer considered the enjoyment I gained from running, or indeed any activity. Enjoyment was an incidental residual effect of being awesome and the sole pursuit of enjoyment was frivilous. The pursuit of awesomeness and self-improvement on the other hand was totally OK, and that is what I was doing.

In the Autumn of last year, just after my first marathon and just after I returned to shift work and a zero-hour contract, my relationship with running changed. I was tired – really frickin’ tired – and after a few post-marathon weeks off running I had lost the motivation to do, well, pretty much anything. My running was slow and my legs felt heavy. Far from improving, I felt I had completely regressed. The one thing that I felt I was good at was gone, and despite my efforts I couldn’t motivate myself to even jog a few times a week until my mojo came back. After all, what’s the point in doing it if I’m doing it badly? Do you remember me saying that I considered the simple pleasure and enjoyment of hobbies to be a frivolity? Well this was the backlash. The self-loathing was rationalised by the fact my post-marathon legs ached and the job market sucked. The therapist had to refer me for more intensive treatment and I was left in the waiting list-void once again, floating and crying, and unable to explain why.

If physical activity alone was a useful treatment for depression and low mood, then surely top level athletes would be immune. But they’re not. There are loads of articles that you can read online about depression and anxiety amongst athletes of all levels, particularly due to injury (when their sense of purpose is lost or jilted) and post-race. Although the hormones and chemicals and stuff that are released during exercise are awesome, I don’t think they are enough to avoid chronic low mood. What we do need is a healthy perspective towards pleasure and leisure, to know that no single element in our weekly routine or timetable defines our character. Instead we are the result of everything that we do, enjoy, pursue and think about. Our hobbies should be relished and our enjoyment of them should be celebrated – no matter how shit we think we may be at them – because the simple fact that we do them anyway and the reasons why we enjoy them have far more significance and make us far more interesting people.

I’ve been embarrassed to start writing this blog again. I felt like I need to explain the irregular posts and then the 6 month hiatus, but fuck it – I enjoy writing. And, as I’ve already said, I write this blog as a journal for myself. I never expected people to read it (but the fact that they do does fill me with the warm fuzzy feelings). I’ve been learning to enjoy myself again in the last few months, to relax, and to pay attention to the multitude of reasons why I enjoy exercise – being outdoors, meeting new people, having ridiculous adventures, learning more about how our bodies work, seeing new places, and getting away from the mundane routine of work, eat, shit, sleep…

I made a deal with myself in the Spring and, believe it or not, it made a massive difference to both my running and my mental health. I ran a half marathon and didn’t give a shit about what time I ran it in. It felt wonderful. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the crowds, the jogging, the laughing, the conversations with strangers, and the beer afterwards. During training I enjoyed meeting up with people to run and learning to be sociable again. On paper I might have looked like a bit of a slow coach, but I felt like a total winner.

This post wasn’t wholly written as a confessional though. It is also a warning to those who may be losing their perspective a little too. Remember why you started running and remember all of the bizarre adventures you’ve had as a result of it. Don’t curse those bad runs, but instead celebrate the fact you even bothered trying. Remember that even when you’re not running, you still have interesting things to talk about and are surrounded by people that want to listen. And maybe get a back up hobby, y’know… just in case. Running was by no means the cause of my depression, but my attitude towards it has highlighted why I have routinely suffered with it throughout my teens and adult life. I see these attitudes mirrored in other activities in my past, and so I’m starting to resume a couple of old hobbies that have previously been dropped too…

Oh, and by the way, I’m totally getting better. Fuck yeah! Although I do think I made an excellent mad person…

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2 responses to “Running and depression: An alternative perspective

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