The Emotional Side of Trail Running

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“I am crying in my car at the trailhead.”

“I am depressed after my race and I don’t know why.”

“I hate myself today and can’t run.”

Those are snippets of text messages from athletes I coach. Each of those athletes is a joyous light in the trail running community. Each has won big races. Each is healthy.

But each has traveled through low points along the way—existential crises that, at the time, seemed all-consuming. Most of us go through times like that, though you’d almost never know it by scrolling through social media pages.

The emotional side of running is rarely talked about. We highlight the successes and high points, but less often the inexplicable bouts of sadness and frustration, the cycles of low motivation and depression.

If there was only one thing I could convey to trail runners after years of coaching, it would be that working toward self acceptance is not a linear process. Instead, it’s a lot like a fun elevation profile, full of peaks and valleys.

Specific methods for dealing with individual moments of sadness or crisis are beyond the scope of this article—psychologists and therapists are amazing resources for that. The message here is much simpler: it’s okay to feel sad about (or because of) running. It doesn’t make you any less of a runner or person.

How emotions affect trail running

The human condition is full of existential angst—death, failure, personal relationships, cable-news broadcasts. We trail runners also have our own unique stresses, like body image, training scheduling and physical fatigue. Sometimes, running can even have chemical consequences.

Training can cause hormone swings, which have a direct impact on your mood. Hard training releases the stress hormone cortisol, and as Dr. Jeffrey J. Rocco explains, chronic cortisol overload without appropriate recovery can throw the entire nervous system out of whack—it can cause the body to break down muscle for fuel, store excess fat and even slow down brain function.

Cortisol isn’t the only culprit. Just messing with the body’s hormonal and nervous-system dials can have unpredictable emotional results, with highly individual responses. For example, exercise increases brain input of insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which can have powerful effects on mood. A 2016 Scientific Reports study found IGF from exercise (along with other factors) had varying implications for mood between sexes.

Moreover, for women, running training can occasionally throw off the balance of sex hormones, causing another layer of internal strife. For men, it can reduce testosterone.

On the other hand, running can activate the pleasure circuitry in the brain, releasing endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, the same chemicals released by sex, drugs and rock and roll. As discussed in this summary article from Psychology Today, running can essentially get you a sustainable high, improving your mood.

In sum, the uncertain interaction of training, hormones and emotions is a lot like predicting the weather—you can make forecasts based on initial conditions, but it’s a complex system that could surprise even the most well-trained specialist.

 Related: Training and the Art of Stress Management

It’s not just chemical

Aside from the chemical response, running sets up a constant stream of tasks and rewards that is inherently linked to emotion and self worth—both good and bad. 

The best example might be the post-race blues. While depression could be a physiological response to the demands of race day, often it’s tied to something less tangible: being suddenly unmoored from the purpose of daily training.

Other factors can cause similar hits to self-worth: a bad training run, guilt over a perceived imbalance between training and family time, injury … the list goes on.

Every runner brings a different set of life and running experiences to the table. The range of emotional responses that running elicits is massive, from ecstatic joy to depressing lows. Some have direct chemical causes; others aren’t as clear-cut—but they are no less real.

It’s okay to experience a full range of emotions

The connection between trail running and emotions is part of what makes the sport so beautiful. Have you ever screamed in joy at the top of a mountain, or experienced quiet contentedness from completing an otherwise-mundane midweek run? How about tears at mile two when your legs won’t seem to move, or a feeling of emptiness at your desk the day after a big workout or race?

No matter where you fall on that spectrum of emotions at any given moment, just remember that it’s okay to experience the full range. You can’t always predict how you will respond to your unique mix of running and life.

Of course, knowing that running-related emotional crises are normal doesn’t necessarily alleviate the sadness. Talk to friends about it, talk to professionals, talk to us if that might help.

The self-acceptance journey takes time, like all good things in life. Going through low points doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human. Besides, you can’t climb mountains without navigating some valleys in between.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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