How running is an effective stress reliever

Lucy E Cousins interviews Perth-based psychologist Marny Lishman for Real Insurance.

If your to-do list keeps growing, the bills keep piling high and your inbox is out of control, you might be one of the third of Australians who consider themselves chronically stressed. In fact, one in five Australians aged between 16 and 34 years old currently report high or very high “psychological distress”, a number that has experts shocked. It seems stress is a common denominator for nearly all of us.

While there are a variety of reasons and treatments for relieving stress, Perth-based psychologist Marny Lishman says exercise, such as running, is a great place to start. She believes exercise is crucial for optimal health, both physical and mental, and that’s the reason she recommends exercise to nearly all her clients.

“Exercise has been shown to improve mental health by alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress and by boosting mood,” she explains. “Exercise, including running, not only helps reduce the stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline but it also helps release dopamine and endorphins – which are the feel-good chemicals in the body.”

It's this release of chemicals, she says, that leads to the famous “runners high”, which is a familiar feeling of those people who run regularly.

Running as stress relief

For marathon athlete and running coach Lydia O’Donnell, running has always been an “incredible way to relieve stress” and is an essential part of caring for her mental health. 

“Spending time alone while pounding the pavement gives me an opportunity to work through any mental challenges I may be facing and provides me with instant gratification (and a confidence boost) from achieving a run,” she explains.

Lydia believes that the physical movement of running and the mindful act of the sport, offer benefits for the mind and body holistically. For her, running at the start of the day is key to managing her stress levels for the next 12 hours.

“I personally find running first thing in the morning the best way to set up my day to be in a good mental state. I’m able to spend time with my thoughts, work through any potential challenges in the day, and benefit from the endorphin injection!” she explains.

However, she points out, it’s important to understand the difference between eustress and distress, and how it is affected by running. Namely, that eustress is a form of stress that can impact a person positively and distress is the form of stress that can impact a person negatively.

“As running takes time and energy, it can be an additional stress on your body and in some cases, may add to the load of stress a person is carrying, if it’s not approached correctly,” she says. “Ideally, we want to alleviate stress with running and only get back the positive impacts.” 

So how do we do that? Well, when approaching training, she advises, we should all consider how we are mentally feeling at that moment, how our energy levels are, and what our intention is for the run ahead. That way, she says, “we are only gaining the benefits of running and not risking adding to our stress levels”.

Should I run alone or with a group?

With its long list of benefits and stress relief side effects, it can be hard to know if it’s better for our mental and physical health if we run alone or with a buddy. And while some studies have shown that running with a romantic partner can strengthen your relationship, and running with a buddy can keep you motivated, from a mental health point of view Marny says that it actually doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing it in the first place.

“Many of my clients ritualise running into their day, not only for physical fitness reasons, but as a way of nurturing their mind – whether it’s belonging to a group of like-minded people, being a part of nature or even just giving their mind the ‘alone time’ it needs to get into the zone for the day or help process emotions,” she explains.

As a running coach, Lydia adds that to get the most out of running in any session, it is important to take a personal and holistic approach to the sport, which may include a running program such as the Real Insurance running programs.

“Understanding your intentions for running is the first step to making the right decisions for you,” she says. “Having a running programme that is built on your ability, experience, goals and physiology can also help to be sure you are building a healthy and sustainable relationship with running for the future.” 

Having that guidance on when you should be pushing the pace and when you should be taking rest days, will help to manage stress and help you get the most out of the sport, she says.

“For those who menstruate, taking into account your menstrual cycle, and what day/phase you are in, will also allow you to only execute training that is appropriate for where you are at physically and mentally, which will in turn help with stress management,” she adds.  

Running and stress: where to start

So, while running can be an effective relief for stress, for many people it can be challenging to know where to begin with making it a go-to coping mechanism.

Marny, recommends taking “small steps” and not pushing yourself too hard.

“Have an overarching goal of what you want to achieve and then break it down into small measurable steps and build up from there,” she advises.

This should include considering the time of the day, how long you will run for, and perhaps pick someone who you can be accountable to (a running buddy).

Make sure you do it in an enjoyable way, she adds, “as ideally you want to build it up and sustain this healthy habit for your body and mind for the future”.

The Real Insurance Sydney Harbour 10k and 5k offers world class views for the entire race, and it’s fun!

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This article is an opinion only, provided for general information purposes and should not be relied upon as personal advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care professional before starting any fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.