Editor’s note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning when I saw a dear friend complaining about her exercise regimen. I mean, she had every right to complain; she had just finished a 3-mile run and was tired and sweaty. Her legs were swollen, her face was beet red, and she was just sitting down to guzzle her water and catch her breath.
But there was something she said during her post-run social media tirade that caught my attention. Something that made me chuckle and laugh and slowly nod my head.
“Running sucks,” she wrote. “It just sucks.”
Of course, I couldn’t argue with her there — at all. I mean, I may be an avid distance runner myself, but I have to agree: running does suck.
It is a lonely, painful, and tiring sport.
But I don’t run for fun. I don’t run to get a better body, or because I’m super competitive and love to win races. Instead, I run to lift my spirits and to clear my mind. I run by myself and for myself. I run to take care of myself. And I run because running makes me a better person, a better partner, and a better parent.
Because running, as it turns out, is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my mental health.
I’ve always struggled with self-care, in one way or another. I am what you’d call an empath; a people pleaser; a caregiver. I am codependent at heart, and as such, my needs have always come last.
I willingly throw my own ass under the proverbial bus all the damn time, but and when I was diagnosed with depression — a mental illness that tells you you are aren’t good enough or worth enough every single day — I knew things had to change.
I had to change.
Unfortunately, while I saw a therapist, a counselor, and began taking meds, I was barely hanging on. For years, I was alive but not really living, because there was still no self-love. There was still no self-care.
But then I found running.
A fluke invitation from a friend got my ass out of bed one day and onto the pavement.
Make no mistake: I hated that first mile. I hated how the sun stung my eyes and how the sweat felt as it rolled down my back. I hated the pain in my calves and the knot I felt in my chest, and I loathed the fact that this run made me realize how “out of shape” I was, as I huffed and puffed my way through the neighborhood.
But something made me go out again. Something made me try again. And before long, I was pushing harder and going further. I was feeling strength with each step and a new sense of pride, and before I knew it, running became a huge part of my life — and a metaphor for my life.
Because if I could overcome great distances — if I could overcome thousands of miles — I could certainly conquer the next minute. The next hour. The next day. I could make it through another bout of depression or another anxiety attack, and I could do so because running taught me how to try. Running taught me how to take things slowly, and it showed me where everything begins: with one action. One step.
Before long, I saw a physical shift: my legs became leaner, my abs became tighter, and my back became stronger. My body felt more powerful than ever before.
I saw an emotional shift, too: I was calmer and more thoughtful. I was focused and more determined. And for the first time in forever, I had confidence.
I had grit and tenacity; drive and determination.
And most of all, I saw a mental shift — which is to say that my bad days became far less frequent. My depressed moods felt less intense (and far less overwhelming), and while I still struggle with both depression and anxiety, I had new tools to help me overcome them.
Tools which were given to me not by a doctor with a pill, but by my own body. By my own mind. And these tools have carried me not only through my mental illness but through parenthood.
They have helped carry me through life.
Of course, running cannot (and should not) take the place of professional help if you’re struggling from a mental illness or other chronic illness; but running can help get your blood flowing, keep your mind clear, and compliment your broader mental health plan. And while it cannot fix everything, in my experience, it’s a damn good place to start.
So yeah, can be lonely, painful, tiring, and exhausting. Not to mention, often boring. (I mean, how can staying on a treadmill for an hour or longer not be?) But running can also be relaxing, empowering, and transformative. For me, running — and self-care — changed my life.
And at the end of the day, there’s nothing that sucks about that.