Run Yourself Happy
Add some science to your running and put even more smiles into your miles
10 science-backed ways to feel better now
We runners are generally a happy bunch. A 20-year study of long-term marathon runners found they experienced less depression, anger, tension, confusion and fatigue compared with the general population. Other research has found that regular exercisers are less anxious, more positive and more resilient in the face of stress. There’s no doubting the many mental health benefits we already gain from lacing up, but could applying the latest scientific findings on happiness make our smiles even wider, both in and out of our trainers?
Action for Happiness (actionfor happiness.org), a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to building a happier society, has conducted extensive research into what makes people flourish. ‘When we think of happiness, we tend to think about short-term pleasure, like the runner’s high,’ says Vanessa King, the lead psychologist for Action for Happiness. ‘But the concept of eudaimonia relates more to pursuing fulfilment and satisfaction than euphoric joy. We need both for a happy life.’
Last year, Action for Happiness published a list of 10 evidence-based keys to happier living, and running can help you find them all.
‘The 10 keys are a synthesis of the research on what makes us happy – highlighting areas where we can take action or make choices that have been shown to increase happiness,’ says King, author of Tenkeysto Happierliving (Headline Home) and also a runner. ‘I see it as a menu, not a prescription, as we all need different things and at different times.’
Indeed, one of the keys is exercise, so it would be easy to assume you’re ticking that box. But the reason exercise contributes to happiness goes beyond an endorphin-driven buzz. ‘Taking care of your body has a positive effect on the mind,’ says King. ‘Exercise is a method of looking after yourself.’ It’s quite possible to be a runner without doing that, however – pushing yourself too hard, ignoring niggles and denying your body the recovery and nutrients it needs. It’s an example of how a few tweaks to your attitude and, perhaps, your training, could help you maximise the benefits you derive from running and move you further along the road to happiness.
HAPPINESS KEY GIVING Do things for others
When Matthew Rees saw David Wyeth on the verge of collapse less than 300m from the finish line of this year’s London Marathon, he abandoned his own race goals to help a stranger to the finish. ‘He had come so far and after 26 miles of running I wanted to make sure he made the finish,’ says Rees. Later, downplaying an act that captured media attention worldwide, he commented that such acts of kindness happen routinely in the running community. That’s good, because research published in the International journal of behaviour al Medicine suggests helping others boosts not just the recipient’s happiness, but the person offering assistance, too. ‘Helping others provides a sense of meaning, gives feelings of competence and improves mood,’ says King. ‘It also takes our minds off our own troubles.’ This has been dubbed the ‘helper’s high’ and, intriguingly, it appears to be contagious. ‘Research has shown that observing someone doing something kind or thoughtful, or being on the receiving end of it ourselves, inspires us to follow suit,’ says King.
Feel miles better
START SMALL People often worry that they don’t have time to volunteer or help others, but being more giving doesn’t have to involve grand gestures. ‘Just a smile is an act of giving,’ says King. Think about the small things you could do right now – one study found that when people performed five acts of kindness, one day a week for six weeks, their wellbeing increased. ‘Offer a fellow runner a few words of encouragement as you pass each other or congratulate someone’s achievements on social media,’ suggests mental-performance coach Midgie Thompson (brightfuturescoaching.com).
PUT YOUR HAND UP Research by volunteering charity Join In found regular volunteers in sport had 10 per cent higher levels of self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience compared with those who had never volunteered. Eightyseven per cent of volunteers said it gave their life more meaning.
GIVE BACK Help get a new runner – or runners – started. Contact runtogether. co.uk to find out how to set up your own group. ‘I took a friend to her first Parkrun
a few years back – she celebrated her 70th last week,’ says Thompson. ‘She’s become part of something she never imagined she’d be part of and is trying to inspire others to become part of it too.’
It’s great to be generous with your time and energy but make sure you leave time for yourself too. Research shows the happiness and health correlation with altruism only exists when you aren’t overwhelmed by tasks.
HAPPINESS KEY POSITIVITY Look for what is good
A Polish study at Gdansk University found athletes had a more optimistic outlook than non-athletes; this glass-half-full approach to life contributes to greater mental wellbeing. ‘It’s not about being in denial when bad things happen, it’s simply about trying to focus on the good in any situation rather than the negatives,’ says King. ‘It’s our thoughts and interpretations of events, not the events themselves, that drive our emotions.’
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SEEK POSITIVES They can be found in every run and race. Perhaps you ran without walking, you met a friendly dog, you felt the sun on your face or you caught up with friends. ‘It doesn’t always have to be about performance,’ says professor Andy Lane, a sport psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton who has conducted research on the benefits of natural environments on mental state.
Fixating on what went wrong takes the joy out of running and adds pressure to your next outing. ‘Ask yourself what went right,’ says Thompson. Focusing on the positives will make you feel happier and doesn’t mean you can’t learn from your mistakes and do better next time.
HAPPINESS KEY RESILIENCE Find ways to bounce back
Resilience is increasingly being recognised as an important life skill, says Thompson. Yes, skill, not characteristic, because it can be learned. And in other good news, research also suggests that some of the neurological changes caused by running can help increase our resilience. One study found that participating in a 12-week running
programme reduced heart rate and blood pressure in response to a stressful mental arithmetic test. Other research looked at executives who had experienced a stressful event; it found those who exercised the most displaying the least-intense physical and psychological symptoms of stress. But it can be a double-edged sword. ‘Many runners tick off a lot of their [happiness] keys through running,’ says King. ‘If something happens that means they can’t run, what happens then?’ A psychological tool called ‘If/then planning’ helps to arm you with coping strategies. ‘It’s about thinking of the measures you could take to cope with or alleviate a bad situation,’ King explains. ‘If you were to get injured, think how you might be able get the positives you derive from running elsewhere – would it be volunteering with your club to keep up social connection? Would it be reading up on different training methods to avoid future injuries, or taking the opportunity to try a new sport while you can’t run? All of us experience tough times in our lives but how we respond to them is what influences our wellbeing.’
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IF/THEN PLANNING Spend some time thinking about how you’d cope with scenarios where you have to forgo your trainers for a period, such as illness or injury.
TOOLS AT THE READY Think about what’s helped you recover from tough times – being in nature, helping others or socialising – so you build up strategies that will help you bounce back.
SEE THE BIG PICTURE Keep your running in perspective. ‘It’s not the end of the world if you don’t achieve your goal,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself initially, but then move on.’
Be clear that resilience doesn’t mean you have to pretend everything is OK. That can be counterproductive so don’t be afraid to express how you are feeling or ask for help. ‘Resilience is not about being macho,’ says Lane.
‘Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep and listen to your body. This will make you feel better’
HAPPINESS KEY COMMUNITY Connect with others
Relationships are essential for happiness. Being connected with and feeling close to family and friends is the core, but our broader social networks also confer a sense of belonging. ‘Connection with others is a basic human need,’ says King. As a runner you’re part of a global community, but it’s the smaller sub-communities within that which truly make you feel like you belong. ‘Parkrun is the perfect example,’ says King. ‘It’s as much about being there on a Saturday morning as about the run itself.’ Seeing all those smiling faces on the finish line boosts the likelihood of you feeling happier, too, according to a study in the Britishmedicaljournal. The 134,000+ members of running clubs will attest to how much they gain from belonging to a like-minded group: not just great running buddies, advice and routes but also support, encouragement and the social interaction. ‘You’re sharing the same experiences and that is both uplifting and motivating,’ says Thompson.
Feel miles better
JOIN UP Joining a group or club is one of the easiest ways to become part of a running community (see britishathletics. org.uk or runtogether.co.uk). Or get involved in your local Parkrun (parkrun. com) or Goodgym (goodgym.org).
GIVE KUDOS Virtual communities can be just as powerful, says Thompson. If you prefer to – or need to – train alone you can connect with others through networks such as Strava.
Don’t let your commitment to running and the community around it become an obsession that crowds out family and non-running friends. Be flexible and considerate about how your running fits in with your loved ones and you’ll all be happier.
HAPPINESS KEY EXERCISE Take care of your body
As a runner you’ll be familiar with the pleasure of basking in a postrun glow. You may assume that the buzz is all down to exercise-triggered feel-good hormones, but Dr John Ratey, author of Spark:howexercise Willimprovetheperformanceof Yourbrain (Quercus) believes it’s more complex. ‘In addition to feeling good when you exercise, you feel good about yourself and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area in the brain,’ says Ratey.
Numerous studies have shown that even a single run can boost mood and the benefits accrue over time, so exercise has both an acute and a long-term effect on mental health. ‘When you’re pursuing running goals, you have a good reason to improve other aspects of your lifestyle, too,’ adds Thompson. ‘ You’re more likely to adopt other healthy habits.’
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MIX IT UP Ensure your runs are varied in length and effort level so you get a range of physical benefits and don’t overstress one system. Researchers haven’t definitively isolated the perfect type of run to elicit the runner’s high, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author of Flow:thepsychologyof
Optimal Experience (Harper), suggests that it’s likely to be a run that hits the sweet spot – challenging enough to gain a sense of accomplishment but not so challenging that it takes you too far outside your comfort zone.
CROSS-TRAIN It will reduce injury risk and add balance and variety to your training.
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF ‘Running can be the focal point of this, but it’s not the only thing,’ says Lane. ‘Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep and listen to your body. This will make you feel better and improve your running health.’
Our bodies need rest as much as they need physical activity. ‘Overdoing it when you’re ill or injured isn’t good and could impact on other keys, for example, setting and achieving goals,’ says King. Make peace with taking a break when you need to. Last year, a Brazilian study found that runners with signs of exercise addiction who had to stop for two weeks had a significant decrease in happiness, showing increased levels of depression, confusion, anger and fatigue. ‘If it isn’t making you happy, ask yourself what you’re getting out of it,’ says Thompson.
HAPPINESS KEY AWARENESS Notice what’s around you
Becoming more mindful and aware of the world around us does wonders for our well-being, according to findings by Action for Happiness. Running gives us the opportunity to do so, putting us in the moment,