How to Use Running to Improve Your Mood

Four simple lessons I've learned from Scott Douglas's 'Running Is My Therapy'

“I don't sing because I'm happy. I'm happy because I sing.”

— William James

You’re probably no stranger to the mental health benefits of running. In fact, they’re probably a big reason why you run in the first place!

They’re a big part of why I run too, but I’m not sure I’ve ever appreciated them like I do now, after a few months of living under quarantine thanks to Covid-19.

At the start of all this, back in March, I started a running streak that lasted 31 days. While I was doing it, I didn’t feel any extra mental strain or pressure from staying at home all the time and not seeing colleagues, friends or my extended family. Everything was pretty hunky-dory.

As long as I kept up my running streak, that is. When I stopped after 31 days, I felt the wind go out of my sails mentally, and to be honest it hasn’t fully returned.

Just as I was feeling pretty down the other day — after a few days in a row without running — I happened to spy a copy of Scott Douglas’s Running Is My Therapy on my bookshelf, where it has sat unread for the past couple of years.

I picked it off the shelf and started running through it. As the book opens, Douglas delves into the most recent scientific knowledge we have around how the brain works and what strenuous aerobic exercise can do to improve how it functions.

It was all fascinating. But, I kept wondering, how can I put this into practice in a way that will work for me? Like, today?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to read very far. In chapter four — titled “How to Use Running to Improve Your Mood” — Douglas offers up simple, practical steps, as well as a way to think about your running so you’ll get the most from it.

In the chapter, he hits on something I think we’re all needing now, a way out of the fog that so much of life has become:

It’s one thing to run for an hour and go from being in a good-enough mood to a better one. It’s a fundamental shift to go from being miserable to content. Almost every runner I talked with for this book gave some form of [this] statement: “I’ll finish a run and be like, ‘Wow, this is how most people feel all the time.’”

The shift I get most days is from my default fault-finding with reality to what the seminal psychologist William James called “the Yes function.” I’m more expansive, open, and engaged; less sour, dismissive, and despondent.

That’s how we’d all like to be all the time, isn’t it?

These are likely things you already know, but it’s intriguing to learn why these simple steps can be so effective:

Figure out the best run length and intensity for you

As Douglas asks, “What types of runs will best lift your mood? How far, how fast, when and where should you run?”

The most important answer to that question, he adds, is “a run that occurs.” Just getting out for a run on a regular and consistent basis is key. Don’t beat yourself up if, one day, you just don’t feel up to the distance you’d planned on. “A four-mile run has much more in common with a 10-miler than it does with a zero-miler.”

Long runs have been found to be especially effective at boosting mood — but for you, that might mean 40 minutes or it might mean 70 minutes (or more).

Find the best time for you — one you can run regularly

Like many people, I find morning running helps set the tone for the rest of my day. Everything seems more bearable, more possible, more filled with potential.

That may (or may not) work for you, because the non-running parts of our lives determine when we can run. Age is a factor too; as Douglas, a man in his fifties, says of the late-afternoon runs he once did, “by the end of most workdays, I’m tired in a way that wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago.”

He adds in longer runs during the week too, as shorter runs aren’t enough to lift his mood for long. “When I string too many of them in a row, my mood suffers. I need a few longer runs to get more substantial relief, so I’ve switched primarily to running in the morning to make sure those extra-effective runs happen.”

Run out in the natural world whenever and wherever you can

For those of us who live in cities, this isn’t easy. In Atlanta where I live, around me in all directions lies an asphalt jungle. But I can drive to a nearby national park, one of my favorite places to run anywhere.

The difference between these two environments — especially when you can run near water — makes all the difference in the world, Douglas says. And there’s another big benefit, he adds:

“Natural settings can also foster mental freshness. The trails I run on are typical for New England, with roots and rocks permeating the ground. I have to stay focused on my next four footsteps if I want to stay upright, and that makes it more or less impossible to once again examine all of life’s deficiencies. During half of the year, when the trails are covered in leaves or snow, I miss this guaranteed reprieve from rumination.”

There’s something special about running

No one talks about “swimmer’s high,” Douglas notes. Though other forms of exercise like cycling confer enormous benefits, there’s something about pounding the pavement (or the trails) on foot that triggers mood-boosting brain activity like nothing else.

Plus, for many of us, running is social:

“Running allows for a greater personal connection with others,” said Heather Johnson [whom Douglas interviewed for the book]. It’s hard to really get to know someone while swimming, dodging cars on a bike, or doing burpees. I think part of the depressed feelings I feel when I can’t run may be the missing social connection.”

Keep in mind that you are unique. What works for Scott Douglas (or for me) might not work for you. We always have to find the time, distance, speed and cadence that works for each of us as individuals.

What I think is so helpful about what Douglas gets at is to be intentional about our running so we get the most out of it, rather than mindlessly going out for runs that, over time, can leave us bored.

Mix it up, have fun, and challenge ourselves — and we might just find our minds taken away and swept up in what we’re doing.

How about you? What works for you? And how do you manage your running so you can get the best of it, and yourself?

I’d love to know. 😃

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Run For Justice

A virtual 5K set for this Saturday and hosted by Black Men Run and Latinos Run, this race is one you can walk or run wherever you live. The only thing the organizers ask is that you wear a black shirt when you run it: “Let's continue to celebrate ‘virtually’ the eclectic colors of our community, embracing all the diversity that makes us rich, vibrant, and unique. We will all wear black shirts in protest and solidarity.”

Free | Sign up here

Kentucky Derby Mini Marathon

While the in-person event for this Lexington, Ky., race was rescheduled from April to August 22, you can run the virtual half marathon anytime before September 30. You can also run the full marathon virtually, as it was removed from the rescheduled in-person event due to scheduling conflicts.

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Mammoth Half Marathon

A limited number of spots are available for newly registered runners of this half marathon through the stunningly scenic landscapes of Northern California’s High Sierras — and you can run the course of your choice anytime by August 31. Race organizers will start mailing out packages in early July so you crown yourself a winner as you finish.

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Jeff Galloway’s Retro Race Series

Famed Olympian and longtime Atlanta-based running guru Jeff Galloway has hosted his own half marathon since 2014, but if you missed any of the first four years, now’s your chance to collect the medals to complete your collection. All you need to do is these three things: choose your year, run the distance, and collect your medal.

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Great running reads

Running Is a Lifesaver For Two Women Stranded in the Arctic. Getting out for regular runs has been crucial for a pair of climate change researchers waiting out the pandemic on Svalbard, a chain of islands between the tip of northern Norway and the North Pole.

“Running has saved us here. We have run on the ice several times in -27°C! I write that and can hardly believe that we did it. Routine here has been so key for us.”

The Magic of Running Ridiculously Slow. One woman’s experiment on herself, to try to develop a habit of consistent running. What’s really interesting about this is how she discovered it worked better to stick to her plan, even when she felt like kicking her speed or distance up a notch.

“I had to work on my mind before I could work on my body. Instead of setting myself up to an ambitious goal, I could shrink the target to a size that would be impossible to miss.” 

How to Start Running and Actually Like It. If you’re new to running, I can’t think of a better article that explains just about everything — all in less than 1,400 words. From the differences between road and trail running to the basic exercises you can use to help improve your own running (like fartleks, hill intervals and tempo runs), it’s an excellent primer for someone just starting out.

“Overuse injuries are the curse of the new runner. The sport’s accessibility—the lack of required gear, the fact that it doesn’t require learning a new skill, and the idea that you can simply step outside your door and hit double-digit miles—often prompts beginners to do too much, too fast. Without prepping your body for high-impact hammering on concrete, you may end up with injuries. Easing into running is your best defense.”

We’re Running For Our Mental Health More Than Ever Before. A study by the running wear brand Asics — which has seen signups for its Runkeeper app surge by more than 600% this year — sought to figure out exactly why so many people are taking up running during the pandemic. Nearly 80 percent of some 14,000 runners they surveyed said running helped keep them feeling more “sane and in control.”

“Our study’s findings prove that a run is much more than just a run, especially in times of crisis. It’s a way for people to put aside the mental pressures and challenges of this pandemic and feel free.”

A song to run to today

Travis County” from the album Blak and Blu by Gary Clark Jr.

Want to hear all the songs we include in our newsletters? Listen to the full playlist on Spotify here.