“I run because if I didn’t, I’d be sluggish and glum and spend too much time on the couch”
For many, the idea of going for a run is about the last thing they would think of as a way of enjoying part of their day.
For those feeling anxious a run can seem like their idea of hell.
Yet physical exercise can be a very important part of feeling well again. I have spoken about why this is so here.
When I used to get anxious a run would help me break the cycle of thoughts which caused my feelings of anxiety.
However, I quickly learnt that although this would help, just going for a quick run when I was anxious only stopped the feeling for a while, it did not stop it returning.
In this sense it is a coping technique, only done when required to cope with the anxiety.
I later learnt that physical exercise could be used proactively to stop anxiety, rather than just reactively to reduce it when it occurred.
It does require a commitment though, to plan and carry out a regular and frequent exercise programme no matter how you feel.
This means that even when you are having your better days you must still stick to it because you know it will help you in the days to come.
Why is this?
- Natural reward – exercise rewards you with a natural high, you feel good about doing it and this helps improve your mood and long-term self belief
- When you keep up the physical exercise you often eat better too – when you spend time exercising you don’t want to ruin it by eating a load of junk food – good food helps your body and mind function properly
- You sleep better – humans are meant to be active. Just like a dog, physical exercise tires us out both mentally and physically
- Your motivation and commitment often permeates into other areas of your life – you get things done and your accomplishments lift your self esteem
By sticking to an exercise schedule you improve your self discipline and you feel a sense of achievement.
Exercise is also great for stress relief, it uses your adrenaline in a healthy way and also clears your mind of negative thoughts and feelings. When you are able to start to really push yourself, your mind becomes too focused on what you are doing to be worried and anxious.
It can also help with feeling of panic by getting you used to the feelings of a racing heart. This can be a double edged sword as to begin with your mind may interpret this as a panic attack.
To reduce the chances of this happening you must simply start slowly. As you begin to push yourself keep reminding yourself that:
My heart has to be pumping, this is completely natural and not a fear response
It will not take long to get used to this and eventually the sensation will cause you no alarm.
The Calm and Courageous running routine
Once you have got used to running a little and are ready to take up a more permanent routine this is what I suggest:
- Work out 3 different routes all of about 2-3 miles long – you only need to be running for 20-30 minutes
- Aim to run each route at least once per week – a variety of terrain helps to keep each run a little different
- Jog lightly for the first 3 minutes – once warmed up start to push yourself
- Aim to run at a pace of 7-8 minutes per mile – when you can go no further at this pace reduce it to just a brisk walk
- When ready again pick up the pace – push yourself until you need another rest
- Keep doing the ‘push’ and ‘rest’ periods – this should be done for the entire route
- Aim for an overall pace of 10 minutes per mile – you’ll find you’ll need to rest for longer as the run goes on
The reason for running in this way is because you get the best benefits when you are running hard. Now most new runners are unable to keep this up for long which is why you will need to walk and rest for a while every few minutes.
It’s known as interval training and its effects on weight loss and cardio performance is better than just a steady jog for the entire route.
Keeping up a good pace and pushing yourself is essential to clear your mind and release stress and tension. If you’re able to talk while you’re doing it this means you’re not pushing yourself enough.
An example run
I use an app to help me track my running, it helps me monitor my progress and set myself goals and challenges to beat. This helps me keep up my motivation to keep getting out there and pounding some pavement.
Here is a map of a run I did on the Bristol Downs (an excellent place to run) showing my route, distance, pace and time.
My runs rarely exceed 30 minutes or 3 miles, in this case it was 2.86 miles which took me 28 minutes 25 seconds.
This is not a fast time, and is because I run hard (green sections) and then walk for rest periods (yellow/orange sections) which takes longer overall than a constant jog for the entire journey.
I start off slowly to warm up but then the majority of the run is at a fast pace with the shorter rest periods in between. As the run continues the fast pace periods become shorter as I begin to tire more quickly.
On this run I averaged 9 minutes 56 seconds per mile, just below the 10 mile per minute speed I have suggested.
Finding the motivation to keep your runs going
The biggest motivation should be your health and mental well being.
To feel the real benefit you need to get a few weeks under your belt but, once you do, make sure you keep it up. Otherwise you can find you soon lose the motivation, your runs become less and less frequent and you’ll quickly lose the gains you have made.
Making a commitment to exercise regime is important, it can be helped by:
- Making it one of the most important parts of your day – tell yourself you are doing this to feel better and that you have to keep it up to feel the benefits
- Setting aside time to do it – don’t tell yourself you’ll do it if you have the time, because you know you probably won’t
- Setting yourself personal goals and targets to keep breaking – this can be distance, time, pace, terrain etc, the only way to do this is by investing in a running watch or app for your phone to track your results
- Setting up a long term goal of competing in a local running event – even if it’s just a 5k run it will give you something to work towards and help keep your motivation up
- Investing in some new gear – a good pair of shoes is a must, but there is plenty of other running apparel and often a financial commitment can help you keep it up
You can also join a running group. I personally prefer to run alone because I can do it in my time then and run the way I want to. Most groups run at a more steady pace which I feel doesn’t have the benefits of interval training.
Of course running isn’t the only exercise you can do. It’s one of the best because it needs little investment, can be done almost anywhere and in your own time.
That said, I prefer to get most of my exercise through sport (football), but running is an excellent top-up to this in the off season or when games are postponed.
Running and indeed any form of exercise isn’t just about the relief from anxiety it provides. It’s also about looking after yourself and building your confidence and self esteem through the feelings of achievement it brings.
You learn not to care if you feel anxious or not, because with or without it you are going to get some exercise anyway. This in the long term helps prevent you feeling anxious in the first place.
After a while it becomes a habit, and a great one at that.
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