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Running Isn’t Therapy

Saying “running is my therapy” is about as common as spandex in trail running. But, they are not the same thing.  Stories about people grappling with PTSD, anxiety, depression or addiction through ultrarunning are pervasive in outdoor media, and the way we portray those stories can be problematic.

I’m not here to discount exercise’s impacts on mental health, which can be very positive. It boosts mood, reduces stress and can help manage anxiety. While “running is my therapy” is a fun saying, I’m skeptical of how heavily our culture leans on exercise as a panacea for mental well-being.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I have owned and operated a human brain for most of my life. I’m also not here to diminish the accomplishment of running an ultra – they’re hard! Working through a physical challenge can be a great way to reconnect with your body and test your resilience. But, it does not address any underlying mental health issues.

Stories about people running instead of seeking treatment inadvertently de-legitimize mental illness. If someone said they were signing up for ultras as a means of treating a painful toothache, hopefully, you’d kindly recommend a good dentist. Equating ultrarunning with treatment can send the message that mental illness isn’t real illness. Implying that mental illness is just something you could run off downplays its legitimacy. You wouldn’t treat influenza with ultrarunning, so why treat mental illness as any less real?

Saying that running is therapy can stigmatize seeking help. Recognizing that you are a wonderful, beautiful, complex human with complicated mental and emotional needs takes so much courage. Acting on that, and asking for help, takes even more. By portraying people who lace up their trail shoes instead of reaching out for help as braver or stronger, we unintentionally send the message that the courageous thing to do is not to get help.

Exercise can be used as an avoidance strategy, used to escape pain, anxiety, trauma, family or relationship dysfunction and a myriad of other issues. Pay attention to the “why” behind your pursuit to make sure it’s healthy. Is this run a way of connecting with others, sitting with or emotions, or is it a means of escape or a punishment? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone, but there is so much hope.

Engaging in the daily process of self-compassion and mental wellness is about as un-sexy as it gets. It probably won’t get you many new followers or kudos on Strava, but if there’s anything trail runners are good at, it’s toiling in obscurity for incremental improvements. That’s not to say that running isn’t a part of mental wellness.

Running can be therapeutic. Candles can also be therapeutic. I would highly recommend against going all-in on Anthropologie aromatherapy candles or ultramarathons as a means of treatment for mental illness. There are enormous benefits to exercise and getting outside. Those can be amazing tools for mental wellness, but it’s not the whole toolbox.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t run. There’s a wealth of evidence that shows the benefits of running for mental health or as one of many mental health interventions. Running can be a critical part of your mental well-being. I think the danger is in being over-reliant on this particular intervention. If you’re really struggling, you should know that you’re not alone, and that help is available. We should just be skeptical of narratives that seem to glorify people resisting that help.

Being a person is hard. Running can be a great antidote to the low-level malaise and stress that is part of being alive in the age of climate uncertainty, large cultural shifts and a live-action Cats reboot.  It’s wonderful that so many people (myself included!) find so much joy in movement, but it’s not the same as actual counseling. Running can be a great time to sit with your thoughts and work through feelings. You can do that in therapy, too – guided by the gentle hand of a trained professional.

It’s worth acknowledging that one reason so many people turn to running in lieu of therapy is that mental health resources aren’t accessible to everyone. Many places like Universities or other organizations can provide community counseling that charges on a sliding scale where clients pay what they’re able. One organization, Bigger Than The Trail helps connect runners with different resources, like online counseling, as well as providing a community of support.

Everyone has their demons. Using them as negative motivation for ultrarunning, instead of embracing and working through them, will not give you a competitive edge. Empathy and self-compassion are much better performance enhancers.  I love the mental clarity that running long distances can bring and that it’s a socially acceptable reason to eat a sleeve of Oreos while shuffling through the woods. Self-knowledge and snacks are key ingredients in a well-adjusted human being.

No matter where you are on your mental health journey, you are a valuable part of the trail community. Running can be an important part of the journey towards unconditional self-love. Want to get to know yourself? Running is a great way to explore all the weird corners of your wonderful brain. Like many things, it’s a spectrum. We’re all mental health explorers adventuring our way toward self-acceptance. You don’t need to have a mental illness to go to therapy. Counseling is for anyone who wants to talk to someone about anything – and that’s probably most of us.

I know that the attention paid to stories about people who run ultras to address mental illness is well-intentioned. Those articles, books and podcasts are popular for a reason.  We want to celebrate our friends’ strengths. We want to encourage people to strive toward big goals. But, we can re-direct that enthusiasm towards stories that encourage mental health and interdependence.

As a community, trail runners have the ability to lift up stories of people striving to be their best and ask for help along the way. We can encourage our friends and fellow-runners to take ownership of their mental health and advocate for themselves. It starts right here.

Zoë Rom is Assistant Editor at  Trail Runner. When she’s not writing she’s running, and when she’s not running she’s reading.