Running Is My Therapy

As part of the aim to write more regularly it makes sense that reading and sharing the good reads as well as the lessons with you more regularly fits into this category. Running is my therapy by Scott Douglas is one of several books I’ve read recently. I saw it on the shelf in the Tracksmith shop when I was in Boston to compete in last year’s Boston Marathon. It was much easier flicking through a book than it was trying on their clothes the day after that miserable (due to the weather), but memorable (due to the weather) run!

I was drawn to the book as a resource for people I work with and yet so many of the pages resonated with me personally. I spend my days helping people discover what works for them; it’s only fitting that given I am also a human being trying to be better that the ‘shrink’ shares a little of what works for her.

Let’s first take a look at the origin of the word ‘therapy’. Mid 19th century: from modern Latin therapia, from Greek therapeia ‘healing’, from therapeuein ‘minister to, treat medically’.

In the 21st century, I think the word ‘therapy’ could be interchanged with terms and phrases like ‘giving back to yourself’, ‘self-care’, ‘psychological recovery’, ‘disengaging’, ‘headspace’, or ‘time for you’.

Whatever the century, finding things that work for you to maintain optimal mental health is part of the game we’re in as psychologists.

I first started as a psychologist in private practice working within sports medicine clinics. People, mostly those who were business advisors, suggested I change my title to mental skills coach or mental skills trainer or performance coach or simply coach. This was because working with a psychologist was not appealing. Dan Carter, one of legends of New Zealand’s All Blacks said as much:

“When I started my career, if you said you were going to see a psychologist, everyone would ask if you were all right. Now they say that if you don’t.”

I have, and those that have been part of Mental Notes and the entire industry for the last 15-20 years, know it’s been a slog but one that’s worthwhile as we are now seeing and hearing that mental health matters for performance on and off the field of play. We don’t just want mental performance or mental health we want both.

People also wanted me to focus on ‘peak performance’ not issues or ‘problems’ like depression or anxiety, but that’s not human – elite athletes experience both – as they are human.

It pleases me no end to take part in mental health workshops in an elite sporting environment – everyone has their ups and downs and if we can get a better understanding of what contributes to individual optimal mental health we’ll all be in a stronger position to live life fully.

Here’s what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has to say about strengthening our response to mental health:

Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. The WHO constitution states: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” An important implication of this definition is that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world.

The second paragraph of above is the particularly relevant. We are in a much better place, not just to excite and inspire future generations, but to experience life and all it has to offer.

Whilst this article started as a book review it headed more towards a self-reflection piece. Yes, my role is to teach strategies to people however I also enjoy trying strategies myself. And so after a few pages of Running is my therapy I concluded that I not only run as it’s one of the only physically active things I can do consistently while I travel for work (with some level of consistency). It is also my therapy. Exercise is definitely a factor in my mental health.

I joke that long runs are the time when I go through what I want to say, what I should say and then conclude with what I will say. It’s also my time to be creative, to escape, to free associate and to problem solve. It really is my time to give back to myself via keeping fit, providing some thinking time, and focusing on me vs me (i.e., how I improve myself).

There are so many benefits of running. The most obvious is improvements in cardiovascular fitness, but it is well documented that it’s helpful for some people’s mental health. Increasingly, I find myself encouraging elite athletes to find time in their weeks for cardiovascular activities for their mind (as long as the Strength & Conditioning Coach agrees with the load).

There is enough evidence to demonstrate that exercise is integral to mental health. If running is your thing great. If not, find other physical activities that force you to move. Not just for your body’s benefit, but your mind’s health too.

In aiming to ‘make psychology matter’ I recommend the book as a resource as well as highlight the fact that even those who are helping others need to look after their mental health.

Enough said, I’m off for a run…

Andrea Furst PhD | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered
Get in contact with Andrea –  Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.