Slow and Steady! A Yogis Guide to Running & Mental Health
For the majority of my life, my attitude towards running was "I don't run and if you see me running, you should run too because someone is probably chasing me." It's not that I wasn’t into exercise or living a healthy lifestyle, it was just that every second of running felt like torture, and I would just rather do anything else. Flash forward many years later and more and more research comes out about how running can improve mental health. Though you’ve probably heard it all before, studies reporting on the relationship between running and mental health find that running improves mood, decreases anxiety and increases self-esteem (Oswald et al., 2020). So, after a serious depressive episode in 2019 and then living through the isolation of the pandemic, I figured I better try this running thing again. This time, with the goal of running being to improve mood and not to lose weight or get fit, I entered into my running routine a lot differently.
First of all, speed nor distance were important. Instead, I just wanted to maintain a slow and steady pace for a certain length of time. I used the 5k runner app to help me, because I heard that it started really, really slow. For example, you start off running for a total of 20 minutes with 1 minute walk/run intervals with the running increasing and the walking decreasing over many months. Eventually, you build up to 35 minutes of running as slowly as you want to go. See photo of my latest run (2.8 miles in 36 minutes for a tortoise’s pace of 12.5 minutes pre mile.) The incremental nature of the app helps you build up your tolerance and more importantly, your sense of accomplishment.
When running is not about crossing a finish line, it can be quite meditative. Your attention is drawn to what’s happening in the present moment. If you’re running outside (which I highly recommend over the treadmill), all your senses light up as you take in the fresh air, sunlight, sights and smells. Add in a sprinkle of gratitude for an extra mood booster. I'm often thinking of the Mary Oliver quote while I'm running “it is a serious thing /just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.”
If it’s possible to run in a group or in a place where you'll see other human beings, do it. Connection is key when it comes to mood. On my runs around the reservoir in West Orange, I smile and wave to the regulars who I see every morning like the smiling elderly woman pushing a walker in traditional Chinese robes. And of course, tons and tons of dogs which require frequent pit stops to pet or say “whose a good boy out here getting his walkies on!”
For me, the best part of running is a playlist of inspirational music at the right tempo blasting through my Beats headphones As a yoga teacher, I get tired of the mellow ambient music on all of my playlists. The running playlist is a revolving mix of my favorite hip hop, alternative and old disco songs. Is there a better way to start your day than singing “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan out loud! Or releasing frustration with some Rage Against the Machine before having to go back into the office?
I think not!
My best advice for beginners who want to add running into their mental health toolbox is start slow. Even if you went outside for 15 minutes and ran at a snail's pace for only three minutes, you'll be receiving 90% of the benefits simply by getting outside, moving your body and trying something new. Let your dedication to your running be a metaphor for your commitment to feeling better. Keep moving forward, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.