Illustration by June Le in article about long-distance running
Running is the perfect opportunity to listen to new music and be alone with your thoughts. (Illustration by June Le, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

How Long-Distance Running Saved My Mental Health

I started running because I wanted to get back in shape, but it was my mental health that improved more than anything else.

Thoughts x
Illustration by June Le in article about long-distance running

I started running because I wanted to get back in shape, but it was my mental health that improved more than anything else.

Back in Sept. 2019, I signed up for a late May 2020 marathon; I did it somewhat half-heartedly. It was an impulse decision meant to motivate me out of my exercise slump and give me something concrete to work toward. I had no idea that in just under a year, running would change my life in such a profound manner that I can’t imagine ever going back to being a non-runner again.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy working out before I started training for the marathon. I was an athlete in high school and continued working out through my first year of college, dragging myself to the gym every so often to watch an episode of “Friends” while leisurely rocking back and forth on an elliptical.

But my semi-weekly gym sessions were never something I particularly looked forward to. They were a way for me to maintain the idea in my head that I was “someone who worked out.” They were a way, somewhat subconsciously, for me to feel better about eating pizza or sharing a plate of fries with my friends.

My impulsively brilliant idea to sign up for a 26.2-mile race came about for a few reasons. One, I had the desire, like so many other women do, to shrink my body — in my case, back to the more petite version that it was when I was in high school. Two, I had grown tired of my mundane gym routine. Three, my habit of attending Soul Cycle classes to alleviate my workout boredom had racked up quite the bill, and I was looking for something a little less expensive.

Training for a marathon was great cardio, it was something new and it was virtually free. Hence, my entrance into the 2020 Martha’s Vineyard Marathon.

At first, I didn’t take my “training” too seriously. I mean, the race was almost nine months away; I had loads of time! So, I started long-distance running a few times a week, tracking my miles and quickly becoming discouraged when MapMyRun reported that my blistering mile run that I was sure took five minutes actually took 12.

I was apparently not in the shape I thought I was. Still, I continued running almost daily. I eventually stopped being so obsessive about tracking my miles and pace, which proved to be the best decision I could have made. I found it much easier to relax during my runs when I knew there was no app tracking and reporting how fast (or slow) I was going. I started running at a pace that felt good and, as I improved, that pace continued to speed up.

As months passed, I continued running frequently, and when the winter months rolled around and New England starting serving up freezing temperatures and frozen running paths, I found myself disappointed I couldn’t make it out for my daily run. I realized, a little startlingly, that I was disappointed that I couldn’t work out. What?

Not even I knew, at that point, why I liked running so much. It was only when I stopped running for a while (either because I started to get busy during finals week or because the weather was just not conducive to safe outdoor running) that I realized how antsy and anxious I started getting without it.

Running had, inadvertently, become the only part of my day when I was alone for an extended period of time with my thoughts. It was just me and the pavement. Rarely did I take time out of my day before running to sit and ponder my problems alone. I had always heard meditation was a good thing to do, but I never actually got into it. Running, for me, became a type of meditation.

There’s something about the rhythmic pounding of my feet against the pavement that was comforting. There were no expectations, no goals I wasn’t reaching if I was slower one day and no coaches or class instructors to tell me to go faster or run longer.

I have also listened to and discovered more new music since September than ever before. I have always liked listening to music, and running gave me a perfect excuse to explore new artists and bands. I have extended runs by miles and miles in order to fit in more Fleetwood Mac.

It was also stress-relieving to a point where, if I started feeling stressed about anything, I would go on a run to clear my head. I always thought that was just something annoying people said, but it’s truly helpful!

Even though my marathon was canceled, I still continue to run almost every day, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. With all of the added stress from COVID-19 and quarantine, running became a way to escape the confines of my house and enjoy some fresh summer air.

As the summer winds down and the new school year begins, I look forward to getting back into my running routine. As someone who never thought they would enjoy a form of exercise this much, I encourage everyone looking for a stress-relieving activity that’s easy and cheap to try running. You might even find, someday, that 26.2 miles doesn’t sound so bad.

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