This is the first article in a new monthly series focusing on mental health among athletes. Dr. Mitchell Greene will write a monthly article about mental wellness, to be featured in Multisport Zone e-newsletter.
Most triathletes know that a 3-5 mile run a few times a week can help prevent emotional overload. Post-run, you feel a boost of energy, a sense of accomplishment, and a belief that you will survive the day’s e-mails, child tantrums, and last-minute deadlines.
But, according to the latest research on running and the brain, consistent running gives you psychological benefits you didn’t even know existed (but should definitely care about). In “Running is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier,” Scott Douglas, an editor of Runner’s World and several acclaimed books on running, shows how the “cumulative effect” of running leads to lasting changes in brain chemistry that mimic the effects of anti-depressants and similar medications. The research suggests that running two times (or more) a week can stabilize depression, lower anxiety, invigorate your life, and — even more impressively — result in a “healthier brain.”
Douglas was kind enough to allow me to interview him for this article, and his passion for running, and helping others discover the benefits of running, is as personal as it is professional. Douglas was diagnosed at age 30 with dysthymia — a “chronic low-grade depression.” Although he has taken anti-depressants to minimize his melancholy and feelings of insecurity, nothing has helped him as much as his running regimen. As Douglas puts it, running “makes (my) life more livable, run by run, day by day.”
For those who like brain science details, Douglas cites research indicating that even six months of regular running can make significant, identifiable, positive neurological changes. The hippocampus— which tends to be smaller in depressed individuals — expands, releasing a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Douglas refers to BDNF as the brain’s “Miracle-gro.”
If you want to stick it to your friends who don’t think distance running is as good for you as resistance training or high-intensity interval training, you can tell them that in a side-by-side study, distance running outpaced those activities in terms of the “growth of more neurons in the brain.” I also encourage you to brag that your hippocampus is probably bigger than theirs!
Douglas cites study after study showing the benefits of running for those who are anxious, depressed, moody, perfectionistic, injured, unmotivated, or self-critical. It matters little whether you are on or off medication and do or don’t drink alcohol, because the research Douglas presents supports why you still need to lace ‘em up. It also doesn’t matter whether you love or hate speedwork, enjoy long runs, run with groups, or are a solo runner. Douglas wants you to discover what works for you and just go run. If you want to learn how running can help you live better, love better, work better, and find more joy in life, “Running Is My Therapy” is your go-to reference.
That being said, Douglas is also honest in reporting that even he has challenges convincing himself to “just go run.” Almost a four-decade runner, Douglas describes several tricks he uses to force himself out of the house on days when he’s too lethargic or unmotivated.
I particularly liked his description of picturing himself in bed that night thinking about how proud he will feel, knowing he didn’t let circumstances stop him from getting his run in. Another helpful tip Douglas shares, in the book's section on running and creativity, is that whenever he has an inspired thought during his run he switches his wedding ring to a finger on his other hand so that when he gets home and notices that the ring on the wrong hand, it jogs him (pun intended) to remember the thought he had.
Douglas is especially keen on waving the flag for the younger generation, those in their 20s and 30s, who should understand that running now can do your “brain a favor” that pays off when you are 60 or 70. He said that this was a surprising but important piece of data; that lacing up and becoming part of the running community can produce actual structural and lasting changes in the brain.
Multisport atheltes know exactly what Douglas is talking about, because only a brain-induced chemical reaction explains why we swim at 5:30 a.m., ride for five hours on the weekend, and squeeze in runs in the dark after work. Most triathletes aren’t training because they are going to podium or make money in their next race. In fact, there’s no sport (or sports) quite like triathlon to shrink one’s pocketbook. However, in exchange for our commitment, we strengthen our emotional resilience, one workout at a time.
Scientifically speaking, Douglas isn’t sure if there is something special about the long-term gains of running that wouldn’t also be true of swimming, biking, or other endurance workouts. He feels that more research on that question is required, and believes that someday people will be able to have their personality type matched with a specific kind of exercise program, taking the guesswork out of trying to figure out which fitness plan will maximize your heart and brain health.
“Running Is My Therapy” has been published at a time when more and more well-known athletes are openly discussing their mental health challenges, and educating the public to the fact that everyone, at some point in their life, deals with personal (or family) struggles.
If you pick up a copy of “Running is My Therapy” you will conclude that, first, Douglas is a runner’s runner. He lives and breathes (and writes about) running. And, second, that he cares deeply about the running community, and wants everyone to know that this is a big tent under which all runners can participate, especially those who struggle with mental health issues and haven’t yet thought about using running as an important ingredient in their therapy.
Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist, located in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For more information on Dr. Greene and his services for triathletes, go to greenepsych.com.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.