By : Sydney Levine
Your breathing begins to get heavier, your heart pumps faster, sweat begins to drip from your face, but just when you think you’ve had enough, your body begins to release endorphins, boosting your mood and leaving you more energized. These are just a couple of the multifaceted benefits of going for a run. Now it can seem pretty daunting: running. To the non-runner, the thought of lacing up those running shoes and hitting the pavement can be very intimidating. So, instead of trying, most of us have just chalked it up to thinking, “I’ll just never be a runner.” In reality, however, you truly don’t need to be a runner to start running. It’s a process, results won’t happen overnight. You will, however, definitely have to put in the work to achieve the outcome you desire. If you ask a marathon runner how they got started, most will say they didn’t just wake up one day and decide that they were going to run ten miles without stopping; they definitely won’t say that it was easy when they started out. The only way to become a good runner is to, well, get out there and run. You may be asking, so why even start? Why not just pick other forms of exercise? Well, running has numerous benefits on both the mind and the body and to try and make it easier to convince you, here is a little insight into all of those benefits.
First, I want to discuss my own trajectory with running. I would be a hypocrite if I told you why you should start running and I didn’t even run myself. Plus, I always listen to advice better if the person advising me has first hand experience with what they are preaching, truly believing personally what course of action they recommend to others.
I recently graduated from UVA, moved to a new city and started a new job. Let me tell you, post grad life is a lot different from college and a lot has changed. For one, there is a lot less free time post grad. Before and after work I really have to practice good time management to prioritize the things I enjoy. One of the weirdest adjustments that I’m still getting used to is the fact that I’m not surrounded by all of my closest friends. I really have to make an effort to visit them or to even just talk on the phone to catch up. Big transitions in life can be scary and finding a routine is something that has helped me feel grounded; more particularly, running has made adapting to my new environment and routine so much easier, which is why I finally started to take running seriously. I found it has been one of the best outlets to not only move my body and exercise, but also relieve stress and clear my mind. Trust me, I was definitely not a runner when I started – I mean, I could barely run one mile. But now, after being consistent with my runs, I am able to run four to five miles and even finished my very first half marathon last month! I’m here to tell you that you too can become a runner. The benefits it will have on your health, both physical and mental, are plentiful, no matter the distance or mileage you choose to pursue.
We all know that exercise is good for us. But how does exercise – and especially running – actually help you ? Let’s tackle the physical first. Running is a great form of aerobic exercise, or exercise that requires oxygen. (Check out my previous article on the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise). It increases your endurance which in turn strengthens the heart, improving your cardiovascular health (The Truth behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running, n.d.). Cardiovascular health is extremely important, and according to a study in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, running can add years on to your life (Salmon P., 2001). In regards to endurance, you will actually be able to notice this improving as your running progresses. Each time you are able to push yourself a little bit further on a run, whether that be in distance or in time, your endurance is improving. Being able to actually feel and track these improvements is just one of the many satisfying things about running. There is no better feeling than being able to look back at where you started and to see how far you have come. There are also, however, ample physical benefits beyond the number on the clock; studies show that running is correlated to improved sleep and increased immunity (Salmon P., 2001). As flu season approaches, taking care of your body is more important than ever, and to think that avoiding getting sick could be as easy as incorporating running into your routine, I mean what more could you ask for!
Going for a run also has immense benefits on your mental health, and in today’s world, mental health should be a top priority. Running, for some, can become a healthy outlet that improves mental health . Think about it: running can be something where you get to take time for yourself, or listen to your favorite playlist and just for a second forget all your daily to-dos. Going for a run has the ability to clear the mind, boost your mood and lift feelings of stress (Bartholomew et al., 2005). A study published in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine revealed that just thirty minutes of running has the ability to relieve feelings of depression and anxiety (Bartholomew et al., 2005). This might be a result of what is going on inside our bodies when we run. When we exercise our bodies release endorphins – the chemicals that produce feelings of happiness (Runner’s High, 2020). Exercise increases other chemicals produced in the body too, especially serotonin and norepinephrine (Runner’s High, 2020). However, researchers have actually begun to attribute feelings of bliss and euphoria after an intense run, sometimes referred to as a runner’s high, to a molecule naturally produced in the body called endocannabinoids (The Truth behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running, n.d.). Endocannabinoids are signaling molecules that help regulate pain, memory, mood and stress (Endocannabinoids, 2021). These molecules act on the endocannabinoid system, the same system that is affected by THC and the active compound in cannabis (Runner’s High, 2020). This molecule, which is released while you exercise, has the ability to promote short term, psychoactive benefits (The Truth behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running, n.d.). Anandamide, a type of endocannabinoid, can be found at high levels in the blood of those who have just completed a run (Runner’s High, 2020). Now, I’m not saying that you are going to feel like you are stoned after going for a long run, and while more research still needs to be done to determine the connection between endocannabinoids and that “runner’s high” feeling, it might just be enticing enough to get you outside and on a run – or perhaps at least consider it.
Once you begin to run, there are certain elements you will have to incorporate into your fitness routine to maintain and improve your pace, distance, etc. After speaking with Robin Levine, a physical therapist of thirty plus years, she states that, “to become a better runner you must work to strengthen your core, work on your balance, and integrate plyometric work within your exercise routine.” Core strength is essential in order to become a better runner, as this is what stabilizes your pelvis. When you run, you need a strong core to keep your pelvis level sturdy when each foot alternates striking the ground as you run. This is crucial to help prevent injury. In order to improve your core strength try exercises such as front planks, side planks, glute bridges and / or hollow rocks. Balance is another key factor that will help improve how you run. Stability, as mentioned earlier, is extremely important when it comes to running, and the more you work on your balance the more efficient your body will work while you run. Lastly, to improve the pace at which you are running you must work to combine sprints and plyometric work, such as box jumps or jump roping, in addition to your long distance runs. It is important to work every muscle in the body; the greater strength you build in your legs, arms, and core, the greater you will perform on your runs.
In addition to the physical and mental benefits of running, if you stay consistent and motivated to continue to run, it has the potential to become your happy place and a time to clear your mind, just as it has for me. There is almost nothing better than getting outside, breathing in that cool autumn air, and listening to your favorite music – and for just thirty minutes thinking only of placing one foot in front of the other. Living through a pandemic, juggling all of your obligations and going through big life changes adds stress and anxiety to your life. These stressors necessitate an outlet to relieve this sense of feeling overwhelmed, and I hope you take my advice and consider running as this outlet.
Don’t worry if you’ve never really tried running, everyone has to start somewhere, and, truly, anyone can be a runner. Although, warning, if you do start, you may become addicted…
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