Running and depression: A symbiotic relationship that can help ease the pain

As I’ve documented several times in the past, I suffer from the disease of depression. Unfortunately, the disease itself can be incredibly stigmatic in our society. However, I do feel that many more folks, who also suffer from the disease, are beginning to bring the subject into the light. Most recently, I came across NBA Basketball star Kevin Love’s honest and candid admission to his own personal struggles with mental health (Kevin Love on mental health).  Because of my pre-disposition to being an athletic enthusiast, it’s these stories that particularly catch my eye. For myself, running has been an integral part of my own coping methodology.

Run Mindful (8-17 to 8-20) - 180.jpg

Cruising down from Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, CO, during last years RunMindful camp hosted by Krista and Timothy Olson

Done in a responsible and sustainable way, running can be a terrific mechanism for getting through the dark times of a depressive episode. I especially find solace and comfort while running on the trails. The feeling of running step by step through a tranquil and lush forest can become meditative in nature, a state of mind that can be influential in keeping the dark thoughts at relative bay. One thing in particular that I took away from Timothy Olson’s RunMindful (Run Mindful Camps) camp last summer was the notion of focusing on one step at a time and tuning into the patter of your shoe on the soft ground. Akin to the simple act of breathing, a singular running step can bring the mind to a present state, a state that depression doesn’t necessarily like to thrive in, for me anyways.

Along with being featured in the riveting Netflix documentary, Finding Traction, fellow ultra-runner Nikki Kimball is also outspoken on her relationship with depression and how the sport of running has helped her cope. A recent March 2018 article gives great insight into how her running, amongst other things, can help with her own coping process (Nikki Kimball – Tips on navigating through depression). Check it out, there are several good nuggets of wisdom coming from someone who has a breadth of experience in the matter of depression.

So, why does running help curb depressive symptoms?  Several recent studies have shown that it’s not just the endorphins that help.  An emerging view suggests that running can actually facilitate long-term structural changes in the brain, which can promote states of mind such as elevated mood and overall cognition.  Is this a cure?  Of course not, but I’d take it when I’m feeling particularly down.  It seems to me that running can be a healthy antidote.

Perhaps my favorite method of temporary relief from the “gray,” as I call it, is running down a mountain. When I was living in Corvallis I used either McCullough Peak or Forest Peak to help center my mind. Descending on a tricky trail is the perfect way to become present and one with nature and one’s self. When descending at a quick pace there is no time to let the mind wander because pure focus and finesse are needed in every single step, especially on a rocky or rooted terrain. Otherwise, as I’ve done many times, a full-on face first spread-eagle can be likely. It’s like an intense dance of the feet between the terrain. Done at a high velocity, laser focus is needed, simply for safety. Being on the edge does not give you time to think about how effective depression can be on your mind and body. Running downhill is the perfect way for me to get present and out of my head.

During a month-long bought of depression that I experienced last fall it was running that helped save me in the short term. Even though I spent each day of that bout either in bed or on the trail, I believe I was able to manage the pain that I was feeling inside because of my passion for running. The routine that the sport lends itself during that time gave me the motivation to work around something, anything, during the day, rather than obsess about how lonely and broken I was (negative self-talk is something that I work on every day, whether I’m in a bought or not). At that point in my life I would do anything to keep running, which meant preparation by way of sleep, stretching, foam-rolling, and nutrition. That small routine helped navigate me each and every day through a very tough situation.

One mistake that I’ve made in the past is to solely rely on running. In my case, I suffered several injuries while training, which almost made the depression worse because of my inability to do what I love and rely on most. Today, I am able to approach this challenge with a better sense of balance, as I now incorporate writing into the mix of my coping strategies. Sometimes, just writing free-form helps get my mind out of a hole. Perhaps it’s the creativity that can jog my mind out of a dark place. It’s a new coping mechanism for depression and is also one that can be very effective in a time of great need.

Lastly, when I’m in a depressive state, lots of activity and noise can help irritate my senses even more. On the trail, other than the occasional passer-by, there is total peace and tranquility. The McDonald-Dunn forest in the Willamette Valley is a perfect example of a place that I was successful in implementing such protective methodology and was more than quiet. If you listened closely all you would hear was an occasional animal scurrying amongst the brush along with the trees swaying in the wind. Having this sense of quiet is amongst the best method of therapy that I could ever imagine.

So, the next time you are feeling the gray hit you, just try running or hiking on a quiet trail. It has done wonders for me and I hope that it can do the same for you.


4 thoughts on “Running and depression: A symbiotic relationship that can help ease the pain

  1. Mark Frystak says:

    Disease of depression? Isn’t depression the problem but our mi da, thoughts and feelings the real issue?


    On Tue, Jun 26, 2018 at 15:07 A Comeback from Addiction, My Story wrote:

    > spencernewell2014 posted: “As I’ve documented several times in the past, I > suffer from the disease of depression. Unfortunately, the disease itself > can be incredibly stigmatic in our society. However, I do feel that many > more folks, who also suffer from the disease, are beginning t” >


  2. Donna says:

    As our son 2 days ago just finished the 100 mile Tahoe Rim Trailrun for the 2nd time, we wonder in amazement not only “how? ” but “why?” This may explain it. Thanks Spencer.


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