Running Is Great for Your Mood—But What If You Literally Can’t Get Off the Couch?

Countless articles and studies proclaim the benefits of running on mental health, but they forget one major impediment

Charlotte Herrold

A view looking down at a woman's sneakers standing on pavement

A couple years ago, my partner and I ordered a navy-blue mid-century-style sofa online after a way-too-long debate around what style and colour we wanted to replace our old IKEA model with. It was perfect and, for the first year at least, I was vigilant about keeping our panther-sized cat away from using its sleek, sculpted arms as a scratching post. But as the months went by I lost the energy to fight that losing battle—and when I adopted my dad’s cat after he passed away last December, I was outnumbered.

So, now our lovely couch has very lovely frayed edges and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that eventually we’ll just get another one and try again. (I’ve heard those kitty nail caps work wonders….) In the meantime, now we’re free to eat on the couch, to flop down with abandon, not worrying about a stain here or there or the seat cushions becoming misshapen. I have to admit: It’s definitely more comfortable than it was when it was masquerading as a model home showpiece.

That’s where I was splayed out—head full of fog and mindlessly running my fingers through that unintended fringe—while contemplating whether to ditch my plan to run a half-marathon this fall.

It was a lofty goal. I’ve never really been a sporty person; I took dance classes three times a week until I was 19, but was always the kid that dreaded gym. I got into working out later in my 20s but really just for my fitness—and, let’s be real, the elusive six-pack—not because I particularly enjoyed it. And I only really started running long distance earlier this year.

I wasn’t even sure I could do more than a few hundred metres at first. But, bored at the gym, I wanted to try a 10k race. So I joined a run club sponsored by Lululemon because I knew I needed a schedule, and other people, to keep me accountable. I was truly amazed by how quickly my stamina improved, and the ability to meet those goals week after week made me realize that this idea I’d had of myself as a not-very-athletic person was completely within my control to change.

And that feeling of control was practically euphoric. Part of what motivated me in the beginning was the “natural high” runners talk about—exercise stimulates the production of endorphins and anandamide, which work in tandem to leave you feeling blissed out—but being able to do something where I could see consistent improvement was what really kept me going. When I lost my dad, it was after a years-long battle with cancer and a degenerative palsy that saw him become weaker and weaker until he was a thin, frail suggestion of his former self. Unsurprisingly, it took toll on me, too. When I ran, I felt better and stronger week after week—you could say it became a way to regain my own self, both physically and emotionally.

The race, in June, was like a concentrated dose of that runner’s high. I was hooked before I’d even crossed the finish line. So when Nike’s PR team emailed me a month later and asked if I wanted to join a sponsored group of media professionals training for the fall marathon season, it was an immediate yes.

Unlike the Lulu group, which had a mix of beginners and pros, this one was smaller and everyone except me had completed multiple half- and some full marathons before—one woman, I was floored by/impressed to learn, had already done 11 marathons. So I was a touch intimidated, but I also had a custom 12-week training plan created by Nike Running Toronto coach Brittany Moran, so despite my nerves a half-marathon in October felt doable.

Everything started off great. I even hung my training schedule proudly at my desk as if to say, “There: proof—I am a sports person!” But about a month in, I had to miss one of our Tuesday evening group training sessions, and the next week I got busy at work and skipped two of my solo runs. It wasn’t as easy to make gains as when I first started running (because, duh, anything more than nothing is an improvement), and training in the thick August humidity was making me feel queasy. Before too long, that runner’s high was near impossible to catch, and I started dreading those weekly group runs, where it felt like everyone else was literally doing laps around me.

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It was about a month later when I was on that navy couch questioning why I’d bothered to sign up for this race at all. I had just gotten back from a work trip followed by a week-long vacation in Greece, which meant I’d missed two more group runs and, despite packing my gear, most of my solo workouts during that period. “I should be refreshed and excited to get back to my training,” I told myself. But I couldn’t get off my couch.

There are countless articles published every year about the positive impact of running on mental health, citing studies that go back as far as the 1970s. Esquire, Business Insider and BBC News are just three of the outlets to espouse remarkable benefits this year alone. And they’re not wrong.

“I truly believe it is the single best thing a person can do to improve their mental health,” says Dr. Caelin White, a clinical and sports psychologist based in Calgary. In addition to those mood-boosting endorphins and anandamide, he explains that running also causes the body to release small amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. “So when you’re stressed in other ways—from work or your personal life or relationships—you’ll perceive and experience that stress less, because your body will be trained to more effectively deal with cortisol.” This has a cumulative effect, meaning the more frequently and consistently you exercise, the less stressed you’ll be generally.

But what these articles never talk about is how difficult it can be to get out there if your mental health isn’t already at a decent baseline. When I made the call to skip that third Tuesday workout in a row, it wasn’t just jetlag keeping me glued to the couch. For weeks my mood had been slowly slipping into a dark place—so slow that the change was imperceptible. To make matters worse, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants two or three times during my trip, and while I didn’t notice the effects at first, it really hit me when I got home. Suddenly I wasn’t only negatively comparing myself to other runners; I was berating myself in every area of my life, including work and my relationships. In my mind, I was lagging behind everyone, in every way.

So while I was sitting there telling myself, “If you get up and go for a run, you’ll feel better,” it wasn’t exactly convincing. Instead, I ordered takeout and went to bed early. The rest of the week followed much the same pattern: I dragged myself to work every morning, came home in the evening and went almost immediately to sleep, no longer even considering a workout.

“The media might say running is really going to cure everything that ails you, but that isn’t always the case for everyone,” says Dr. Andrew Benedetto, a Toronto-based psychotherapist. “It can be a great support for well-being, but if you’re depressed you might not even be able to get motivated.”

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A couple of days later, the Nike team reached out by email. I admitted that I’d fallen off track—big time—and was thinking of bowing out of the race. But as I typed the words, I realized I really didn’t want them to be true. So, I called Coach Moran and we recalibrated my goals.

“We can get very attached to the plan,” she says. “And as soon as something throws you off it feels like it’s game over—but it’s not. As much as you might have your mind set on training for a particular race, you can always change the distance, or the date itself if you pick another event.”

In my case, I stuck to doing the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon run I had initially signed up for, but dropped down from a half marathon to 5k. With only four weeks left to train, it felt much more achievable and took away some of the pressure that was seriously messing with my will to even try.

Dr. White agrees that sometimes smaller goals can actually be more motivating for someone experiencing depression: “Simply tell yourself ‘I’m getting up and putting on my shoes,’” he says. “If you say you have to go on a 10k run you’re not going to do it. But if all you have to do is put on your shoes, then that’s often enough to get the ball rolling. Just focus on the next step; don’t worry about climbing the mountain.”

For me, a big step was showing up to the next group session and realizing I hadn’t completely lost all of my gains. My legs ached and I was breathing harder than usual, but I still was able to do it. And, yeah OK, I felt great afterward. Day after day, that fog started to clear and I looked forward to my runs again.

One evening after work, I was out for a 7k speed run when it started to rain. It made me think about how easily that would have deterred me from continuing on just a few couple weeks earlier. (Though, full disclosure: I did contemplate an Uber at least once…) It was on that muck-splattered trail when it occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t have gotten back out there at all—at least not as quickly—if it hadn’t have been for the support I received. Most people don’t have access to a trainer they can call to talk them through their insecurities and doubts. Which makes all those prescriptive articles about running seem even more out of touch—and dangerously close to perpetuating the common misconception that people with depression just aren’t trying hard enough to be happy. Getting off the couch simply might not be an option for people who don’t have a hand to help them up.

“Social interaction is key,” says Dr. Benedetto. “One of the challenges for someone who is becoming depressed is that they don’t realize they are as unmotivated as they are. Speaking to someone, whether it’s a friend or a professional, can help you understand what might be getting in the way of your motivation.”

It’s also important to recognize that sometimes indulging in those down days can be necessary for recovery—much like taking time off to nurse an injury. “Depression is energy that wants to go inward instead of outward,” explains Dr. Benedetto. “Respect and honour when you just don’t feel like being active in the world. It’s OK to take some time to reflect.” Turning downtime into active, reflective recovery will help to ensure that day or two off doesn’t turn into weeks or months.

Moran is currently recovering from a physical injury herself, and wasn’t able to participate in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon this year. At first, she says, it was a big blow. But it ended up giving her a worthy perspective: “Injuries and setbacks happen. And it probably won’t be the last time. They key is using that time to ask yourself: How can I change my mindset? How can I work on my weaknesses?”

After I completed the 5k race, I felt better, physically and mentally, than I had in weeks. It taught me it’s OK that I’m never going to always want go for a run, just like I’m never going to always feel well and in control and happy. Both take work—sometimes a lot of work—but it’s worth it.

“As humans, we like to think of improvement as a linear event and it’s not,” Moran says. “Yes, you generally always want to be trending upwards, but if we could continually improve to no end we’d all be Olympians. There are always going hills and valleys along the way.”

Just like how some people are more athletically inclined, some too are blessed with more consistently stable moods. Like everything in life, these things exist on a continuum that varies from person to person and within individuals themselves. Getting off the couch and running that race was proof to me that I could climb out of those valleys—both in my training and in my mental state—and showed me what it takes to get to the top of those hills.

If you’re interested in finding a run club in your city, check out the Running Room or your local run shop.

Related:

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