“The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy… It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.”
Jacqueline Gareau (1980 Boston Marathon Champ)
I live with depression and anxiety. I always have, and while I feel like I have a handle on it now, I believe it’ll always be something I have to work hard to manage. I have a lot of tools I use to manage my mental health, but I’m not exaggerating when I say finding running changed my life.
Depression feels different for everyone.
For me, it’s a strong desire to stay in bed, a blank feeling, the emotional equivalent of the static on TV when you accidentally hit the wrong channel. Depression with anxiety for me is self-loathing for feeling that way when others have it worse, feeling like you’re a burden on everyone around you, feeling overwhelmed because of all the things you need to do but being too worn out to do it, so just deciding not to do anything and stay in bed instead, trying to ignore a feeling of dread that is quickly growing overwhelming.
Asking someone who feels like they don’t have the energy to shower to go exercise sounds like a joke, but a couple years ago, something shifted and I wanted to move.
Group exercise classes were out of the question – I’d probably have to talk to people and act perky, and that was absolutely not happening. I especially wasn’t in the mood to go make a fool out of myself by having to learn the workings of a new class. So what else was there? This thing I only knew from my time doing team sports as punishment – running.
It seemed like the only option, so I got myself out of the house and went for a run around the block. And then I went further. I went about 3 miles on my first run, and it hurt like hell, but so did laying in bed, so why not do this instead? By the time I was done, something felt different – my head felt a little less foggy, things felt a little clearer, my mood was significantly better, and I wanted to do it again.
So, more and more often, I started running. I noticed what a big difference it made for me – I felt a reason to get up and out of bed, and a sense of accomplishment after I finished.
It wasn’t far, and it wasn’t fast, but look! I was actually doing something productive. That feeling spilled over into other areas of my life and I started to feel more capable of handling things I previously felt were exhausting. My grades improved significantly, I took better care of myself, and I felt less overwhelmed by life. Since then, I’ve made sure I always have a race to train for, since it helps me stay on track (literally).
People say running is 90% mental, and I completely agree. It’s changed the way I think across the board. When you’re running long distances, you have to be mentally prepared to push yourself far past your comfort zone, past where your body wants to stop. And when your body tells you to quit, you often have to tell yourself, “Not yet, you can do this.”
Learning that you can, in fact, do more than you thought you could is extremely rewarding. Personally, I have two race bibs from half marathons up in my workspace to remind me that if I can run 13.1 miles, I can handle a tough day.
During runs I don’t want to do, I remind myself that not every run is going to be enjoyable, just like life isn’t always enjoyable, but you do it anyway to get to the better stuff. When I’m exhausted, I tell myself, “you’ve done this before, and you can do it again.”
When my legs are begging to walk, I think, “nope, not yet,” to myself until I’m done. When I’m stuck on the treadmill and every part of me is screaming from boredom, I force myself to continue until I’m done. I’ve learned how to work past negative thinking and show myself I can do what it takes to get things done. “Done” is rewarding, and reminds me I got through something that was difficult for me, and I try to carry that feeling with me throughout the day.
I still have hard days. Learning mental strength doesn’t mean I’ve cured my anxiety or depression, because those are not mental weaknesses. But it does mean that I feel I can push through those hard days, because I feel capable and strong.
I didn’t previously set lofty goals for myself because I felt overwhelmed by the idea of pushing myself past my comfort zone, but now I love the feeling of setting and meeting goals that are beyond what I thought I could do.
I plan on running a marathon late next year, which is something I always thought was for insane people. The funny thing is, now that I’ve decided to do it, I feel saner – and stronger – than ever before.
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Discussion: Have you had a similar experience?