One Dirty Magazine

Running Isn’t Therapy

The way we talk about running and mental health matters.

Zoë Rom November 13th, 2019

Running Isn’t Therapy Zoë Rom exploring the San Juan mountains. Photo by TJ David.

This is part of Trail Runner’s new opinion column, where writers and runners can share their thoughts on everything trail-related. 

Saying “running is my therapy” is about as common as spandex in trail running. But, they are not the same thing. Running cannot cure mental illness any better than Zumba can cure cancer. 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 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. 

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 can be a 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. 

               
   

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AndyD
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AndyD

Running in the mountains on technical trails is like meditation. Being in wild beautiful places with good friends is very uplifting. Sounds like a therapeutic combination to me 😁

Karen
Guest
Karen

The definition of therapy includes “relief of” a condition. As a mental health therapist and researcher I argue that running can be a form of therapy and that saying so is not delegitimizing mental illness. I’m not arguing that therapy from a mental health therapist should be avoided; please seek professional help if you are in need. That said, the evidence based therapies currently available for most mental health disorders are rarely based on evidence yielded from scientifically rigorous research. If mental health providers are being honest they will admit that we know very little about the actual etiological determinants… Read more »

Jen
Guest
Jen

Thank you! I wish they consulted with a mental health professional before printing this article.

Vince
Guest
Vince

Actually, we know — based on tons of scientifically rigorous research at this point — that trauma and attachment ruptures are almost always “the actual etiological determinants of most psychiatric disorders.” I’m also a mental health therapist, an ultra runner, and someone who has greatly benefitted from therapy as a client. I appreciate your comment, and I really appreciate this article and Trail Runner for publishing it.

Andrea
Guest
Andrea

Running can be therapeutic but it doesn’t replace a session with a trained professional. Suggesting that everyone can fix their mental health by running just reinforces the stigma about seeking professional help. The author doesn’t say “don’t run, it’s not good for you,” she says “run, but get other types of help if you need it.”

Margaret Spring
Guest
Margaret Spring

I agree with this statement 100 percent. I think this is the exact point she is making.

Angie
Guest
Angie

I also agree 100% and being someone that has dealt with depression and anxiety and still do. I take medication i talk to a therapist but i also need that run!

Ashley
Guest
Ashley

Great, thoughtful points!

Larry Baker
Guest
Larry Baker

I think throughout our lives all of us slide along the mental health spectrum. When we are in those in between areas we may be able to solve what ails us with solitude and introspection on the trails, in the mountains or on the roads. When we reach extremes of the spectrum we need more than a good long run. I think in general we need to destigmatize mental illness in our country and provide access and coverage for those in need.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I think this is great article that anyone who uses outdoor therapy as a tool in their mental wellness toolbox as the author states. Professionals go to school for many years and rack up a lot of debt to offer the greatest advice they can. Be brave, let them help. Don’t let outdoor therapy be your only tool, it’s too much pressure.

Simon
Guest
Simon

I feel that Zoë misses the point of running as therapy. As some of me who has struggled with depression since my teenage years, finding trail/ultra running as a 37 year old has been a great therapeutic tool. Not only is the solitude and contemplation of trail time extremely helpful, but the improvement one sees while training for a goal or competing in a race is quite fulfilling. That coupled with the awesome and supportive community that I have found in the world of trail running makes this the therapy that has worked for me better than any therapists couch.

Dr. Schuetze
Guest
Dr. Schuetze

I would argue that mental illness, like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, many cancers, and on and on are lifestyle diseases. Trail running, like a diet rich in whole foods, gets us back to a lifestyle similar to what our deep ancestors experienced. In a very real way, vigorous outdoor activity, and good food, is medicine. There is nothing more healthy than for us to gravitate to these things. A good trail run is better therapy than anything I can think of! Way better than the meds a psychiatrist would put you on.

Dennis
Guest
Dennis

You minimize the problem of mental illness when you make comments like this. Mental illness is much more complicated than a “lifestyle issue,” just as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Of course running can be a great tool in treatment, and I think that’s where the title of this article missed the mark, but aside from the few exceptions, running is not sufficient as treatment for a mental health issue. I would recommend it to anyone who would try it, but only as part of a more holistic approach. Is vigorous activity medicine? Yes! But a panacea? Unfortunately no.

Stephen Ultra Flunkie Littlewood
Guest

I would load studies from multiple medical universities that identify a direct correlation between running in nature and the release of chemicals that reduce stress and anxiety and help manage systems of PTSD. I am an avid supporter of the ParkRx.org programs where medical professionals are partnering with local, regional, and national parks to provide prescriptions for outdoor activity. I will not say that therapy is not needed, but physical activity in nature is another treatment method to remove patients from the plethora of medications they are taking for mental and chronic illnesses. As a retiring Marine I have personal… Read more »

Yvonne Krumrey
Guest
Yvonne Krumrey

Thank you for this piece! This touched on a lot of things I have felt about my past with running – I used to use it to avoid my problems and punish myself. Running has been helpful for me, but it has also allowed me to hurt myself. It wasn’t until I paired it with therapy that I had a healing and loving approach to my runs.

This is important and well done! Thank you Zoë!

Believe in the Run
Guest
Believe in the Run

As one who has reached out to therapists, running and the tribe of runners to resolve mental health issues, I find the inadequacies of therapists and therapy are far greater than the inadequacies of running and being around runners when it comes to promoting mental vibrancy. In my experiment of one, “Therapy Is Not Running.”

Margaret Spring
Guest
Margaret Spring

Probably the most important article I have read in this season of my life. For years I felt really low and extremely anxious. I told myself all the things., “you can run this out”, “change your diet and it will go away”, ” tune into your mind,” “meditate and do yoga and you can get past this, ” Guess what… I needed more. I needed therapy and so much more. This article validated how I felt and allowed me to share my story with others. So many times I was literally in the belief that I could change the way… Read more »

Chris B.
Guest
Chris B.

Excellent article. “Running can be a great antidote…” Yes! There are so many benefits to running as you describe. And, when we runners suffer from mental illness, we should not be afraid to seek professional help (while making sure to also not stigmatize others for getting the professional help they need). Thanks so much!

Mikel Haggadone
Guest
Mikel Haggadone

This is a really, really important piece, and it takes a so much courage to write it. Running is a beautiful tool for finding clarity, for motivation, for connection, etc. It can be transformative for so many. But it absolutely cannot replace therapy—hard stop. Zoe’s perspective on this is beautifully articulated. Mental illness is clinically diagnosed. Along with that diagnosis is the availability of modalities (CBT, DBT, etc.) that have been demonstrated to ameliorate its effects. For those on this thread (and on various corners of the internet claiming running as therapy), it’s SO important that you distinguish between a… Read more »

Margaret
Guest
Margaret

This made me tear up in a good way. Beautifully written. I am in 100 percent agreement!

Caitlin
Guest
Caitlin

YESSS! Love this article. For many years, I believed running was therapy. It wasn’t. I simply ran from my problems. The longer I ran, the more praise I received, the more I ran… I knew deep in my heart that running wasn’t therapy. Running is therapeutic, running is beautiful, running is soulful, but running is not therapy. I talk with all of my clients about this. Thank you, Zoe Rom for finally writing the article that is so needed.

Rita
Guest
Rita

Running is calming for me. It helps me clear mt head, it strengthens my breathing, and i can feel it physically and emotionally when i skip it. My therapist recommends some form of exercise on a daily basis because it can help battle depression and anxiety but it is part of my therapy not all. #runningismytherapy

Lee
Guest
Lee

Great article! At first I disagreed with the headline… 😉

Tyler Andrews
Guest
Tyler Andrews

I’ve learned a lot from all of the comments on this thread, enough to keep an open mind about it. I do, however, see the message of “running as therapy” as a little problematic when it comes to the way races and race series emphasize the wellness side of (most significantly) ultra races. I don’t know about other people, but I’ve seen an alarming amount of first time ultra racers at 50 mile+ distance races. This is dangerous for all involved. For example, I just did a race where about 80% of runners dropped on the trail and search and… Read more »

Willson
Guest
Willson

Zoe, this is an important and thoughtful article — and hard to hear for many people, as the comments indicate. Good work!

Dick Buttkiss
Guest
Dick Buttkiss

Thank you for a thoughtful article and comments. I agree that a running lifestyle can be an important part of treatment and should not be ignored, but may or may not be sufficient. So often illnesses are just treated with prescriptions and should really look at lifestyle. Don’t run away from problems, but I do feel that I have run through problem times and come out on the end feeling positive about myself after seeing physical and mental improvement. The brain and mind are connected to the body in so many ways.

Tyler
Guest
Tyler

I really appreciated the author’s openness and willingness to talk about an uncomfortable topic. For a long time, I believed that my mental health condition wasn’t severe enough to justify professional help. I, too, thought I could run, climb, bike, or otherwise exercise my way out of the deep hole I was in. As it turned out, I was using running as a way of escaping the fact that I needed to seek out legitimate forms of treatment. Runners, especially, have a hard time learning to accept that some things can’t be handled by turning more deeply inward and digging… Read more »

Tommy
Guest
Tommy

I couldn’t agree more! Thank you so much for taking on the tough topic and shining a light on mental health.♥️ As positive as trail running can be, it is not therapy. It can definitely be a positive outlet and can help improve mental health; but when running is treated as therapy, it can become dangerous. When things are going well, we might perceive that we have a good handle on our mental health. However, things can fall into a tailspin quickly. This is often seen when runners get injured. Suddenly the gift of running is taken away and you… Read more »

Max Abeyta
Guest
Max Abeyta

Your article stinks! First of all, I am a combat veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD. Your insinuation that many with this issue and others look to running as a medicine we can take to make us well again is preposterous! I run, I workout, I enjoy hiking and trails, I participate in interval and HIIT training and much more! Oh, I am also proud to be a Vietnam veteran having served before you were born with 2 combat tours to a country called at that time, South Vietnam. ALL of my sports and exercise activity is not looked… Read more »

Denise Wilson
Guest

I appreciate this so so very much! Well written, hitting that nail on the proverbial head!!! Thank you for this well rounded article addressing mental illness (and health) and proper means to treat it! If I could stand and applaud you, I would.

Demian Farnworth
Guest

Good message. Therapy, support groups, religion and medication saved and enhanced my quality of life, thus my runs. When I tried to fight life long depression by myself and with running I was only punishing myself. Running is great for relieving stress, processing feelings, challenging yourself and enjoying the outdoors. Running, however, can’t tell you that your childhood was dysfunctional, the messages you received were lies, how to correct destructive thoughts or how to express your feelings in a healthy way. That takes compassionate ears and healthy feedback.

Skyler
Guest
Skyler

As someone suffering from mental illnesses I find this article to be very insulting and just filled with lots of ignorance. The title is just horrible. Just because you don’t have serious mental illnesses and don’t get therapeutic healing from running, it’s not okay for you to claim that no one does. Once you claimed you weren’t a mental health expert you should have realized the mistake you were making and have stopped and never produced this article. Albeit some of the article I do agree with and I think your overall message is a positive one. But with the… Read more »

Jen
Guest
Jen

To me therapy is important because it is a way of connection with another human who has my best interests in mind. Sure, the trail brings a connection with nature and yourself but sitting with another human being asking for and receiving help is at the foundation of what people need to bring back to our technology isolated worlds. We are all made for human connection and without it we can actually start to struggle with numerous mental health issues. For me, working out is my time to process and zone out and therapy is when I connect with someone… Read more »

Shaun
Guest
Shaun

Perhaps it depends? I think there’s a profound difference between running as a way to avoid (we therapists often use the word “manage”) feelings and thoughts and running as a strategy to cultivate wellbeing and joy. Just like a beer with friends can be a meaningful ritual of connection or a way to avoid going home to your troubled marriage.
So, running in the service of what value?

 
 

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