Running has pulled me out of my anxiety and misery
I was a miserable wreck until I found my cure
The first 20 years of my life were spent avoiding anything that got me sweaty. My favourite sports involved sitting down – getting on a bike or a horse for a (gentle) ride was the closest I got to physical activity. But then one day I went for a run, a ParkRun to be precise, and then I went for another one and I haven’t really stopped since, and I also won’t stop telling people how good it is and how much I love it and how they should try running too.
My first year of university wasn’t easy. On paper it should have been: I had great friends on a great course in the greatest city, and a wonderful boyfriend who visited frequently. But, as per usual, my brain became the enemy. Rather than getting out and making the most of my new student life, I became anxious and lonely. I thought I would settle in easily but instead I was desperately missing home and getting far too stressed over work. Respite came in the form of an occasional night with friends, or a weekend spent with my boyfriend, but inevitably they would eventually leave and my exhausting worries and angst would take their place.
It would take me ten checks of my locked door to know “for sure” it was locked; I’d walk up and down the stairs in-between. Sometimes I would even make it to the bus stop before turning around and checking “one last time”. I would overanalyse everything: from conversations, to buses that didn’t look quite right. I was haunted by sleepless nights, terrible dreams and panic attacks. I grew to hate the city I had chosen to live in, and spent my days counting down to when I would next be in the safety of my home.
But I was functioning and I made it through my first two terms: not happy or thriving, but surviving. Then, in the Easter holidays, came that ParkRun – a weekly 5k, free, timed. Some people run it at mega-speed, and some people don’t (the people that don’t, who make it round in their own good time, get the biggest cheers).
I did my first run in 31:09. I had to stop and walk a couple of times, but I finished, exhilarated and ecstatic just to have done it in less than 40 minutes. Remember: I was coming from nothing here. The next week I was faster, the week after that I was faster still. I was hooked. I was making progress, improving, and I, un-sporty as I was, was making that happen. But it wasn’t just that: running delivered freedom from the bad thoughts in my head, space from the anxieties that crowded my mind. Rather than fixating on my long long list of things I was worried about (had the milk gone off? Is the door locked? Where is my life going? Am I going to die today? And so on, and so on), I focused instead on my breathing, my pace, the duck I was running past, how my body was moving. Before long, the relief from worrying carried on after the run, as did the happiness that came with the runner’s high. Now, I am hooked.
Science will tell you that the high that comes with exercise is a result of a cocktail of endorphins, and some things called endocannabinoids, which are basically free, naturally-produced versions of the chemical that gives you a high when you smoke weed.
However, while those lovely things are pumping through my body, I also feel a sense of pride, one unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. Maybe it is a side-effect but when your body successfully transports you several miles at speed and completes a run – despite its lumps, bumps and imperfections that cause so many of us to despair – it changes your perspective of yourself. Suddenly, your body doesn’t seem that bad. Instead, it is a useful, capable body rather than just one clinging to a bit of podge, or with wobbly thighs. And you’re the one that powered it.
Running has not only helped get me fitter and stronger, but has given me a newfound respect for myself. Liking who you are tends to help with the whole happiness, confidence thing.
When I returned to London, I was excited to continue using what I was coming to think of as my own personal weapon. I ran my first 10k in June, which turned out to be optimistic, since my first proper running shoes were the wrong proper running shoes and had given me shocking shin splints. But training gave me energy and confidence to explore new routes and places in London I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. It was my escape route when my room became just too claustrophobic. Plus, even though I was spending more time on runs and less time agonising over work, my project went well, I won a prize and achieved grades I could be proud of.
It wasn’t just the exercise that was helping either. I threw myself into running and volunteering at my local ParkRun, started running with a few organised group runs with Sweatshop and Nike. London may be one of the loneliest cities, and I certainly felt that way for a long time. But running has made it significantly less lonely. Through ParkRun and club runs I’ve met some amazing people and made some great friends. They may not necessarily be my age, or work in the same industry, but that is what’s so wonderful about them. We all have the shared love of running, and listening to their stories, tales, thoughts and opinions is enriching. Without running I would never have got to hear them.
Running has made me feel a part of the city and community. I am healthier and happier. I still have my worries, and my down days, but I am better equipped to deal with them. Instead of feeling apathy for my city and its landmarks, I now feel nothing but joy. When I run past St Paul’s at night dodging puddles, run past Buckingham Palace and only realise when it’s behind me, run to the top of a hill with an unrivalled view of London, I can appreciate its variety, appreciate how lucky I am to be here and, I can feel at home, something at one point I never thought could happen.
So, if you’re stuck in a cycle of self-hate, loathe the city you’re in or feel anxious and exhausted, I cannot recommend more the therapeutic nature of a run, or a run-walk, or whatever the hell you want to do. Get outside, explore the place you think you hate, join a running club or do a ParkRun and meet some different people. Spend some time usefully.
If anything else it’s the basic science of endorphins that’ll make you feel better.