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5 Tips for Trail Running with Anxiety and Depression

5 Tips for Trail Running with Anxiety and Depression

Millions of people are affected by anxiety and depression. Here are some tips for runners dealing with these struggles, from runners who have experienced them.

David Roche April 11th, 2017

If life were a TV commercial, the fine print might say, “May cause anxiety and depression.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million Americans experience anxiety, while millions more suffer from major depressive disorder.

Trail running can be an outlet, but no amount of singletrack can get around the simple fact reflected in these statistics. Life, depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand-in-hand for many people—including trail runners.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the running community seems to deal with anxiety and depression as much if not more than the general population. Running breeds introspection and often involves social isolation, which could attract personality types prone to anxiety and depression. Regardless of the reason, for many trail runners, anxiety and depression play an important role in training, racing and simply living.

In my coaching group, I aim to get runners more comfortable talking about anxiety and depression without labels that may be attached to preconceived notions. To avoid the stigmas attached to the words “anxiety” and “depression,” we use the phrase “brain sparkles.” That silly term has helped some people understand that there is no judgment involved in talking about mental-health struggles.

So let’s talk about it.

Over the years, I have asked dozens of runners living with anxiety and depression what they think are the most important points for sparkly runners to remember. While there are countless great options, here are five that stand out.

 

1. Don’t be shy about asking for help.

A recent study indicated that 13 percent of Americans are on anti-depressants, and millions see a therapist routinely. While it’s OK to have your own opinions on the use of anti-depressants, it’s not OK to fault the opinions or actions of others on such an important topic.

Through coaching, I have learned that so many incredible human beings take a little pill before bed each night so they can be themselves the next day.

It doesn’t make you weak. In fact, your willingness to ask for help is a testament to your strength. The same goes for seeking therapy. What is trail running besides muddy group therapy, anyway?

Talk to people, engage with fellow runners, search for resources that can help (including professionals who are experts in anxiety and depression) and don’t be afraid to own your sparkles, because without your sparkles, you would be boring indeed.

 

2. Love yourself unconditionally.

While they may seem corny, self-affirmations—or positive statements made about a topic or task—can work wonders for people dealing with stress. A 2013 study in the open-access journal Public Libraries of Science (PLOS) found that self-affirmations could be an effective stress-management tool and potentially have positive effects on self image as well.

As always, it is easy to talk about self love, but often hard to implement. I ask my athletes to start simply, with a morning affirmation designed to put the day in context: “I love my brain sparkles, because they are a byproduct of my awesomeness.”

That often feels ridiculous at first, but over the course of many runs spent practicing self-love, it may start to make more sense.

When you are struggling, try to slow down your brain. Stop, close your eyes and smile (meditation is a great option as well). As football legend Terrell Owens said, “I am me, and I love me some me.”

Practice patient self love, even when it’s unnatural and even when you feel like you are lying.

 

 3. Be mindful of your ambitions.

A 2014 study in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice found that conditions like bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety and depression were linked to inflated or deflated feelings of self worth. Ambition and failure are but two sides of the same coin: those who are ambitious will, at some point, fail to live up to their own expectations.

As a result, brain sparkles can be associated with the way a person relates to success.

Running is subject to the ambition trap just like jobs. The sport provides ample opportunity to judge yourself and compare yourself to others. A runner may fail—or get stressed about potential failure—and judge him or herself for that failure. That runner’s brain may stay on edge long after the perceived failure.

To combat this, before every race, I encourage my athletes to adopt the Zen technique of dropping ambition in the traditional sense altogether. It’s OK to want to win a race, but it’s usually not a great approach for long-term contentedness to determine self worth based on race outcomes.

On the flip side, eliminating self judgment from training and racing can help athletes that cope with fear of failure. What happens before, during and after the race is what matters, not the outcome of the race. In other words, there is nothing to fear about losing when there can be no such thing as losing no matter how the race goes.

Win a race (or finish last)? It doesn’t really matter. Get promoted and make a million bucks? Past a certain point, money only makes things more complicated.

Rather than putting running performance up on a pedestal, or participating in the rat race for its own sake, opt out as much as possible. Find reward in the act of running, rather than seeking reward only from the achievement of winning races or setting PRs.

 

4. High performance does not lead to contentedness.

Awards, accolades and achievements won’t change your internal reality. Just because you reach your running goals doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be happier or less anxious.

It’s OK to train and race your butt off, but the process of training or racing should be an end in and of itself. Instead of striving for first place, strive for things like: “lights up a room,” “good person,” “works hard” and “not sure if a person or a puppy.”

 

5. Practice positivity.

Numerous studies discuss the role that positive thinking can play in reducing brain sparkles. This method, called positivity-activity interventions (PAIs), doesn’t work for everyone, but over the long haul it can play a role in helping some people deal with life’s stressful side effects.

Practice smiling when you don’t want to, being enthusiastic when you want to be boring and making bad jokes when you’re not sure you should. Most importantly, try to exude love to people that deserve it (and even those who don’t). You’ll eventually receive all those good spirits back ten-fold.

Intentional positivity is not easy. Your kids will be jerks sometimes. You will get trolled on Twitter. You will not have the perfect job. You will lose a race you should have won, or get injured when you deserve to be healthy. However, if you resolve to smile through the stuff that life throws at you, that stuff will start to smell like roses.

My goal here isn’t to tell you how to feel or act, but simply to let you know you are not alone and that whatever your perspective is, it is OK. Life is a lot like trail running—sometimes you are going up a brutal, sparkly climb that seems like it will never end, and sometimes you are cruising down a beautiful trail without a care in the world.

By honestly talking about how we feel—with friends, fellow runners and medical professionals—we can make the rocky trail feel a lot smoother, not just for ourselves but for the entire trail-running community.

 

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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28 Comments on "5 Tips for Trail Running with Anxiety and Depression"

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Walter Duncan
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Thanks for this.

David Roche
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Thank you for engaging Walter! You are awesome!

Vicki Romanin
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Wish the whole world could see this. Mental health is such an important – and stigmatized – issue. Thanks for bringing it on!

David Roche
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So wonderful of you to say Vicki! THANK YOU!

Ken Michal
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Thanks for this great article, David!! Depression is a huge part of my life and a big part of the runner and person I am now! As odd as it seems to say, depression is one of my greatest gifts and possibly even my super power! Sure, the dark times suck to deal with but it really does give me an appreciation for the times when things go right! You can only see the stars in darkness, right?! Makes it a lot easier to reach for them when you know them! 🙂 I wouldn’t be who I am now without… Read more »
David Roche
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This is so wonderful, thank you Ken!!

Doug K
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thanks David, sensible advice. “Running breeds introspection and often involves social isolation” I think the arrow may go the other way as well – certainly I found joy in running that relieved many of the pains of isolation and introspection. our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits – Robert Louis Stevenson Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are… Read more »
David Roche
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I really appreciate the comment Doug, thanks for being great!

T C-S
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My thoughts. As a psychologist (and a runner) please don’t get athletes to write about mental health issues, such as anxiety/depression, even though it is targeted at ‘runners’. The issue of mental health, in runners or in other circles is still mental health. Get a psychologist to write about it, not an athlete. No disrespect to this athlete or his skills as a coach or runner, but using pop-psych ideas without in-depth knowledge of the field is a poor fundamental starting point for discussing mental health, especially as Roche and your magazine has a large audience base who will listen… Read more »
David Roche
Guest

Thank you for your input T C-S, appreciate your thoughts.

LPS
Guest

Thank you. I find this article and its “brain sparkle” treatment plan more than a little glib. A running coach is a running coach, not a doctor.

A concerned reader
Guest
Agree with all the above. As a psychiatrist, I fight the stigma every day – against the stigma my patients feel and against the stigma of being a mental health provider. I am quite offended by the term “sparkles.” To me, this would be the same as calling diabetes “sparkles.” Can you imagine anyone saying to someone suffering from diabetes “just think positive thoughts and your sparkles “diabetes” will go away? This article couldnalso be dangerous – if someone who is really suffering reads this and can’t “be positive” and continues to suffer, they may believe that they aren’t ever… Read more »
Tim
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Running is better than any drug. It may not cure but it controls.

David Roche
Guest

True for many Tim, thank you!

Becky Heilman
Guest

Great article. I’m going to share it with some of my family. Although I am the only runner in the family I think it rings true for non-runners as well.
Thanks,

David Roche
Guest

This means the world Becky, thank you!

Another mental health provider
Guest
Another mental health provider

These topics are important to discuss, no doubt. But I wonder about the inherent contradiction in “To avoid the stigmas attached to the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression,’ we use the phrase ‘brain sparkles.'” If we’re trying to avoid stigmatizing mental health then we should talk openly about anxiety and depression. To use another, “sparklier” name sends a message that we actually *shouldn’t* be talking about them, or if we do it should be in code.

David Roche
Guest

Thanks for your great input.

Lauren
Guest

This was one of the most helpful running articles I’ve ever read! I’m just starting to incorporate a lot of these points into my own training and it’s really nice to see attention brought to it.
And I LOVE the term “brain sparkles!” <3

Yitka Winn
Guest

You’re the bomb, David. Thank you for writing this (and all of your wonderful columns).

Nutmeg 86
Guest
With due respect to the psychologists who have commented on this article, David’s recommendations are extremely useful. I salute the mental health professionals who have dedicated their lives to first obtaining professional credentials and then supporting individuals improve their quality of life. However, unless you have experienced anxiety and depression from the inside–and have lived with it minute by minute, day by day, year by year–you are not an expert. I have found some of the techniques Dave elucidated to have helped me make major changes that have improved my life. No single approach is best for dealing with any… Read more »
Runner with depression
Guest
Thank you to the psychologists who commented. This article has been swimming around my mind since reading it yesterday. As I am not a mental health treatment professional, I can only write as a person who has a lifetime battle with major depression, and one who creates running camps (complete with licensed mental health practitioners) for people with depression, and one who speaks publicly about my experience to both general and mental health professional audiences. Reading a comparison of athletes going into a race who are nervous or down with a person in a bout of depression, nearly brought me… Read more »
Kyle
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Football legend Terrell Owens? Let’s try former NFL player Terrell Owens.

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