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Health and Fitness Psychology

In praise of… Running

Why did I run? I did it for better mental health, that was a given, but I was also running as a replacement for drinking. I had achieved sobriety because of running, and I loved running because I was sober.

Recently I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of dependency in relationships, where I shared my sober status publicly for the first time. Although this was daunting, spoken words can be taken back or forgotten. Expressing this sentiment in writing is more permanent. Sharing it makes me accountable for my sobriety; but at the same time, it is a personal thing to open up about online.

My anxiety and binge-pattern drinking have run side by side for a long time. I would not call myself an alcoholic, but I am in recovery. In the past, when afflicted by an obsession with alcohol and compulsion to misuse it, I have thought about assuming this label. Would it help or hinder? Am I deceiving myself by choosing not to? Does it even matter how I define it? I am not the only woman to question the stereotypes of sobriety This internal conflict is confusing and challenging to articulate. I need to accept the grey areas and let go of my self-consciousness. There is also an analogy about ‘desire paths’ in the penultimate paragraph that I wasn’t sure would fly, but I’ve decided to run with it (see what I did there?). This is my experience after all. I do also involve the experiences of others in this essay, which I hope does them justice. So, in the spirit of honesty and creative risk taking, I decided to publish it.

I was meant to write about running and creativity. This had been my intention ever since goal setting with bullet journaling helped me run a half marathon. Having formulated the surprisingly simple equation for unlocking my own creative potential (running + bullet journaling = creativity), another achievement followed and I created and published this website. I began to notice the meditative qualities of running, which until now I had not tapped in to. So I thought I would write about the creative output of my mind on running. But when I tried to express these ideas, I couldn’t. Somehow the sentences I constructed felt fragmentary. I wasn’t telling the full story. Why did I run in the first place? I did it for better mental health, that was a given, but I realised I was also running as a replacement for drinking. I had achieved sobriety because of running, and I loved running because I was sober.

When I lived in London I took up running as a means of travelling to work. My office was located just off Piccadilly Circus and I lived a few minutes’ walk from Lambeth Bridge, so I would pass the Houses of Parliament and St James’ Park on my way. The Tube intercepted such sights and I avoided it anyway due to claustrophobia; however my run-commuting was short-lived. Navigating an inner-city running route had its challenges. Hordes of tourists, relentless traffic, rushed commuters and aggressive drivers all conspired against me by barring access to the restorative benefits of running. When my knees objected to the hardness of the pavements I swiftly switched to cycling instead.

Not one to admit defeat willingly, I persisted with running – but I was inconsistent. I ran to stave off anxiety, which wasn’t present all of the time. Even then I only ever reached for my running trainers out of desperation, often by the time depression had moved in. This happened in 2016, as I was approaching the end of my employment contract with the NHS. I had left my office job the previous year for a postgraduate training programme in mental health practice. The pressure of workplace demands and coursework deadlines had increased my stress levels, and now my own mental health was suffering. My sleep was affected and I experienced panic attacks for the first time. Heart palpitations and a deep, pulsating sensation of pressure would creep in to my chest at night, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread. Only a change in my physical environment would break a run of sleepless nights spent in my own bed, blighted by nightmares. A friend would sometimes host me at her flat for this reason and I would get some respite. Our evening ritual combined three basic self-care practices: running; cooking; and sitcoms. Then I would retreat to her spare bedroom for an early night. At its worst my entire working day would be spent in a dissociated state. On better days I felt chronic agitation, not helped by my reliance upon caffeine and nicotine to cope. I remember my muscles aching from tension. It was necessary to expend some of this agitated energy, but gym sessions added more stress. Running was uncomplicated and felt gentle enough on my body. Intense worry still whirred in the background, churned out by the internal chaos I felt, but the instructions presiding over them were straightforward enough: breathe, swing your arms, put one foot in front of the other – and keep going. Having a running buddy helps; they will motivate us when we cannot do it for ourselves. It is comforting that our memories of kindness, shown to us by strangers as well as friends, survive long after the suffering we endure.

One of the advantages of living so centrally was my proximity to Westminster – and the London Marathon’s home stretch specifically. On marathon day I would make my way over to Parliament Square to soak up the atmosphere. I liked the mixture of emotions I felt watching the competitors and hearing the crowd cheer them on. It would stir my own tentative desire to cross the finish line one day, never mind that 5K was the longest distance I could envisage myself running at the time.

By far the most inspirational marathon runner I know is the journalist and author Bryony Gordon. Much-loved by her fans for her honesty and humour, she has been a columnist and writer at the Telegraph since her early twenties (she is now 40). I first discovered her when I stumbled across her Mad World podcast two years ago. She has hosted high profile guests such as HRH Prince Harry and Stephen Fry, but also people like 18-year old Jade, who talks about her personality disorder diagnosis, and former NHS mental health director Mandy, who discusses what it’s like to go from practitioner to patient. These are important conversations to be broadcasting. As a mental health campaigner, Bryony writes and speaks about her own mental health issues, which include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bulimia, drug dependency and alcoholism.

There is a theory of addiction known as the self-medication hypothesis, which suggests that people become addicted to substances to relieve, change or control overwhelming psychological pain. Drugs and alcohol provide a habitual, short-term solution for managing strong emotions or, at the other end of the spectrum, emotional numbness. In other words, they offer us a way of coping with our distressing thoughts and feelings. No matter how destructive the consequences, substance abuse will be serving a purpose of some kind.

For Bryony, alcohol drowned out the negative voices and intrusive thoughts associated with her depression and OCD. In fact, she was still drinking during her training for the Heads Together London Marathon in 2017. That August Bank Holiday weekend she had her last drink. She wrote a book about it: Eat, Drink, Run: How I Got Fit Without Going Too Mad. This followed her memoir Mad Girl: a Happy Life with a Mixed-up Mind, so enjoyable I read it in one sitting. She ran the London Marathon again the following year – this time with friend and model Jada Sezer; they decided to run it together in just their underwear and trainers, to celebrate positive body image.

I appreciated hearing Bryony’s story. For the first time someone was talking about a toxic relationship with alcohol that resonated with my own. Those in recovery from addiction usually talk about hitting their rock bottom: the point at which they decided they could go no further in their addiction. This is a traumatic experience for some, but also a powerful catalyst for change. Bryony’s latest book, which comes out in August 2020, is called Glorious Rock Bottom. It is a sobriety memoir about how hitting rock bottom saved her life.

Experiences like Bryony’s illustrate the deep connection shared by addiction and mental illness. Marian Keyes is another writer who has spoken publicly about going to rehab for alcohol addiction. Aged 30 at the time, she thought: “if I am able to not drink, everything is possible.” (She says more about this on the BBC Radio 2 podcast What Makes Us Human?) Wonderful things did happen: she left rehab in 1995 and her first novel Watermelon was published that same year (she is now one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time). She has since opened up about her major depression, which came on abruptly in 2009 and left her unable to write. Alcohol was “the love of her life”, having helped her cope with low self-esteem and self-loathing since she was a teenager. She learnt she was an alcoholic whilst in rehab, realising at the time that alcohol was the real cause of her distress. In this excerpt she describes what it was like reaching her own rock bottom:

“I felt very depressed and very hopeless. And I was so grateful to alcohol. Because I thought, ‘my god, this is helping me. Because I am so unhappy and how would I manage if this was taken from me?’ And any addiction is progressive, like it gets worse and I continued to normalise the abnormal. I ran out of road. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day: Marian Keyes (S7, Ep6).

According to the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to disentangle cause and effect when the two go together. Some people depend on alcohol to alleviate symptoms of depression (a short-term solution that increases them in the long run). This didn’t apply to me. There is no doubt that drinking affected my mood – wreaking havoc on my health, relationships and routine. When I was happy, I drank to get happier. But in the depths of depression I was immune to its intoxicating effects and would instinctively avoid it.

If you asked what purpose alcohol served me, I would say I used it to feel more at ease with myself, especially in the company of other people. And I enjoyed drinking. I really enjoyed it. Confidence was easier to fake in social situations and I cared less about others’ perceptions of me. But it was always much more than a social lubricant; drinking went hand in hand with social anxiety. It created an opportunity for me to escape into my own head, which I welcomed all too often. Nothing else seemed to matter with a drink in hand. On alcohol my anxious feelings made way for the warm, fuzzy dopamine release and rush of endorphins that would take the edge off any discomfort or undetected emotional pain. It suited my over-sensitivity to the environment by dulling the senses, shutting out the sensory overload that prevented me from joining conversations. Drink dampened the noise in my head too. I would feel pleasantly detached from my self-critical voice, as if it held less authority – enough to convince me that alcohol had some semblance of control over my anxiety (whereas in reality it only pushed the difficult thoughts and feelings away).

This was a comforting experience, until it wasn’t. It is common knowledge that alcohol induces two phases of intoxication: stimulation and sedation. This is known as a ‘biphasic’ effect (interestingly, someone who is sensitive to this may be at greater risk of developing alcoholism). For me, alcohol was an unreliable social crutch that could give out at any moment. The elation and extroversion it offered in the first phase, which facilitated new connections and closeness with others, became a barrier to forming meaningful friendships. It was in the second phase that my mind would check out. Friendships formed in the presence of alcohol felt inauthentic, as if mediated by a third party whose only motive was to drive a wedge between me and the world. The emotional fluctuations caused by alcohol would linger long after my last drink – and my social identity was equally unstable. My self-loathing had not gone, as I had hoped; it had simply been buried – and withdrawal would dig it back up again. The more typical hangover symptoms – headaches, dizziness, lethargy and brain fog – were damaging to my mental health too, compounding worry and rumination. Negative thoughts returned with a vengeance. Still, I normalised it. Surely everyone reacts this way after having a drink? My relationship with alcohol was becoming dysfunctional, but I was not prepared to end it just yet.

The following year I conquered a different addiction: I gave up smoking. Running didn’t seem so bad after this, so I signed up for the Hackney Half 2017. I had recently left a much-loved but highly stressful job in health and social care and I was taking a break from alcohol due to burnout. This was my particular pattern: take a break when things get tough and resume drinking when life is fun again. I spent the best part of my twenties yo-yoing back and forth like this. The day before the Hackney Half I had met a friend in my favourite North London pub garden and got stuck with a miserable lime and soda, while she enjoyed a cider in the sun. On race day I remember being offered a sip of beer by a spectator and feeling deeply irritated by his joviality. I was envious that he was enjoying an alcoholic drink, so relaxed and carefree he was heckling half marathon runners on a Sunday morning. If it were not for my running buddy I would have given up (the race, that is; I celebrated with a pint once it was over), who encouraged me towards the finish line. I remained in this on-off relationship with alcohol for two more years, until I realised for various reasons I had reached the point of no return. So in August 2019 I celebrated my 30th birthday in the pub, and then travelled solo to the Greek Island of Kefalonia for a yoga retreat – taking my new sober identity with me. Back in Oxford I gradually informed friends of my decision to quit alcohol. I avoided pubs for the first six months. And I started running.

Running might act as an antidote to addiction initially – activating our drive system as we strive to achieve that elusive ‘runner’s high’ – but it has so many mental health benefits, it soon takes on a life of its own. I had not appreciated this before sobriety (I did not make the connection between my anxiety and alcohol use until much later). It is a common phenomenon to substitute an addictive behaviour for another one – known as cross-sensitisation. Substances like alcohol and nicotine prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs, which is the logic behind abstinence-based recovery. It also explains my current obsession with non-alcoholic alternatives. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recommends that people who have become dependent on alcohol do not drink non-alcoholic alternatives, as they do contain some alcohol (up to 0.05% ABV) – which could be enough to trigger the desire to drink more alcohol, or relapse from a recovery. This is why it is far better to substitute healthy activities, like exercise, for behaviours from the past.

Sobriety feels more achievable when combined with running. In fact, so does leading a healthy and happy life in general. By combating things like avoidance, inertia, procrastination and fear, running makes way for confidence, motivation and joy. It works wonders for our mood and energy levels. Physical activity can help to manage stress and anxiety, reduce the risk of depression, improve sleep and increase self-esteem. The mind-body connection is clear and running is a case in point. Furthermore, we benefit most when we are focused on feeling good, rather than looking good. Body positivity champion Bryony wants to remind people that exercise is for everyone. She runs for “the gains and not the losses” – for the way exercise makes her feel, “rather than losing weight or inches around [her] waist.” This distinction has led her to truly love exercise. She says: “I don’t always want to go out for a run, but I never regret going.”

As I sit here writing this and thinking about running, I can hear the objections by my own inner voice: “it’s too cold…it looks windy… you’ll struggle… just stay indoors, sit on the sofa and drink tea.” Finding the motivation to run is challenging, especially in extreme weathers. Waiting around for motivation to magically appear would usually disappoint me. Instead I try to treat my runs as appointments with myself. The act of putting on my running trainers is like a little nod of self-respect; it is when I stake my claim to all those feel-good chemicals that reward us with good feelings. My returns are higher levels of motivation, determination and sometimes, if I’m lucky, a natural high. I am so busy assembling my list of things to give up – alcohol, caffeine, sugar and shopping sprees – that I rarely stop to consider what I gain as a result. Energy, focus, resolve and self-belief: these are the qualities to have in abundance, not the external matter feeding our addictions (and keeping us stuck).

Alcohol does not serve the person who drinks to anaesthetise their feelings or alleviate distress, not in the long run. This may sound obvious, but in my case the suggestion that alcohol was unhelpful took a long time to sink in. Besides, I needed to find my alternative coping strategies. Sobriety unleashes emotions that have previously remained dormant, tamed by whichever substance we have reached for to numb ourselves. It is necessary to find alternative ways of coping with distress, because giving up drugs or alcohol opens up the floodgates to our feelings. Radical acceptance of those feelings is the prerequisite to change. Self-reflection can pick up the pace, but it requires courage – it must be motivated by self-compassion, not self-criticism. If, instead of being kind, we are harsh on ourselves, we run the risk of relapsing back in to bad habits.

Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an exploration of her addiction to heroin, unhealthy relationships and grief after the death of her mother, intertwined with the personal revelations she experienced during her solo hike along the PCT. “How wild it was, to let it be”, she writes. Being in nature is a powerful way of grounding ourselves in the present moment. It is where we find the time, space and silence for self-reflection; Wild is testament to that. Why else did I escape to Kefalonia before choosing sobriety, if not to experience its sunrises, sunsets, sandy beaches and calm waters?

Now I surrender to this intuitive need to be in nature as often as I can. I am lucky that my half marathon training can take place in green spaces. Being able to run in nature is a form of escape; a forest, for example, can be a natural place in which to run. My running route, less than ten minutes from my house, begins with a woodland trail leading me to farmland and grazing fields, where I pass rabbits, cows, horses, sheep and alpaca. During a trail run, a well-trodden path is the easiest kind to follow. The course is clear because the ground has been worn down, having been used countless times before. To me these paths represent my negative thinking patterns. They have been tried and tested many times and the destination is always the same. Sometimes the paths go round in circles; others lead to dead ends. Desire paths, however, emerge as more efficient or easily navigated shortcuts. They are created naturally, as a consequence of erosion caused by foot traffic. Andrew Furman, who is a professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes they tell us something about “the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path.” Similarly, author Robert Macfarlane calls them “free-will ways”. Freedom of choice is important when it comes to running; we can choose where, when and how to do it. Part of the pleasure is having something we can truly control, which is not always true for the thoughts in our head. For me, desire paths represent the new neural pathways I am creating when I engage in my latest running challenge. Like desire paths, their formation is based on our habits and behaviours. With each repetition of my run the pathways grow stronger and my running habit becomes more established. When I come across a desire path I am reminded of this – and my desire to surpass myself grows stronger too.

Previously, I wrote about how the act of logging my running activity has increased positive emotions by supporting my goal attainment. I was so happy after completing my first 10K that I filmed myself doing a victory dance, which I shared with friends (why, given everything else I’ve shared, does this disclosure feel shameful?). Celebrating the small achievements like this might feel awkward at first, but it will keep you motivated. I enjoyed building up steadily to a half marathon distance because it felt gratifying to achieve each goal along the way. This step-by-step approach made it pleasurable, meaning I was more likely to stick to my training. I never thought running would become a habit, but in 2018 I ran the Oxford Half marathon and I am hoping to run it again this year. Try it. Engage in some healthy competition with yourself. The desire to win will know no bounds.

Photograph: Forestry England.

By The Wellbeing Wordsmith

MSc Psychology student writing about wellbeing.

3 replies on “In praise of… Running”

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