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Running is Not Therapy

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I've been running since I was 12, and I've been competitive most of that time. From multiple trips to State cross country and track and field meets, to running on the national stage at the NCAA Division 1 level, to completing ultra marathons, I've been around the running block. I've seen firsthand the struggles and triumphs that running has brought myself and other people. I know how much work it takes to be really good, and I've witnessed the reality that hard work is not a guaranteed avenue to success on race day.

Throughout my time as a runner, I struggled with mental health. I was diagnosed with an eating disorder in 2015, and spent the next 5 years seeing therapists and dietitians and learning how to feed myself again. Running and eating disorders are cousins- nearly a third of female college runners report some type of disordered relationship with food. Many runners have a history of some type of mental health concern: depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. We are inviolable and extremely vulnerable, pushing our bodies and minds to their precipice while simultaneously battling deep, dark, persistent demons.

In 2014, I sustained a laberal tear to my right hip. Prior to this, I'd never been hurt before. The doctor said it was overuse. I knew that it was overuse plus my eating disorder. There is no way to stay healthy and injury free as an athlete while starving oneself. It's simply not possible. Up to that point, my world revolved around running. My identity, my sense of worth, my excitement, my joy, my heartache, were all tied mostly to running. If I were feeling down, I'd go for a run. Most of my friends ran, and the running world was all I knew. I loved it, but I didn't realize how much I depended on it. So when I was hurt and removed from that world, I didn't have the skills to cope. My eating disorder escalated. At one point, I was barely over 100 pounds and I became addicted to seeing how much smaller I could become. When I was able to return to the track, I wasn't as fast, but I didn't care anymore. I only cared about being smaller. Months into my return to running, I sought treatment and my world, once again, was in upheaval.

I took a big step back from running when I was in treatment. I needed to in order to heal my body and straighten out my brain. But as I returned to the sport, I noticed a prevailing notion being tossed around the running community, "running is my therapy," people would say. Or, "running is my church." I balked at both of these notions, because running and therapy are not even close to the same thing. Therapy helped me dig up my trauma, address my fears and insecurities, and find healthy ways to cope. Running is a sport. It's an activity. It's awesome, but running is not therapy. It's easier for me to run 50 miles than it was to sit across from my first therapist and admit I had a problem. The emotional and mental growth that therapy provided me could never be simulated by a run of any length or intensity.

Furthermore, saying that running is therapy can stigmatize seeking help. We all have unique physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, and it takes courage to reach out for help or to admit that we're struggling. Conflating running with therapy can unintentionally send the message that the courageous thing to do is go for a run and not seek help. Running can be transformative, but to claim it can heal is a mental health issue is dangerous.

Mental health is pervasive in the running community. One case study found ultra running has the potential to be very beneficial to a person's mental health through a variety of areas: social ties, time spent in nature, and physical activity all being positive outcomes. However, the study also found that engaging in ultrarunning can create dependency when used as a primary coping skill or as an essential part of someone's identity. That's the trap I fell into in college, and it's one I've intentionally worked to avoid falling into again. Every person who runs is so much more than just a runner.

Running ultra marathons carries a host of positive benefits: increased mental toughness, self efficacy, confidence, physical health, stronger social connections, and an overall increased satisfaction with life. But the narrative that running can replace therapy is incorrect at best. The ability to run while maintaining a balanced, healthy life should be applauded more than the ability to simply run.

I will never not love the sport of running for its rawness, its grittiness, its beauty. I will never not love getting lost in my brain while running through the mountains or along a soft, secluded trail. I will always appreciate what the sport has granted me: an education, friendships, laughter, confidence, triumph. But I will never place the weight of my mental health on the shoulders of a run. That's a weight the sport was never meant to carry.

P.S. Watch this video from Altra about running and mental health, watch a video about ultra runner Jim Walmsley's struggle with suicidal ideation here, or read about running and depression here.


Sarah Rose

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