The Effect of Mood on Running and the Effect of Running on Mood

The evening before my half marathon in New York City (which you can read all about here: Allstate New York 13.1 Half Marathon, New York- 30th state), my husband and I got into an argument that was started by him. It was pretty serious and I was furious with him. Not furious because he was mad or why he was mad but furious that he chose that moment to bring up the subject. It was something that could have certainly waited until after my race.

I was worried I would have the argument on my brain during the race and as a result do poorly in the race. You see, even though I went on a journey to explore the importance of the mind and running in 2018, I’ve known well before then how my mood can effect my training runs and race performance. However, it’s a subject not many people talk about, which is why I’d like to explore it a bit here.

For some people, anger can actually get them fired up so much that they run faster. I’ve found I’m not one of those people. If I’m angry and try to go for a run, I usually end up working through the problem by the time my run is over but my average speed isn’t that great. I’ve seen other people who seem to go faster when they’re angry, though, so I guess some people are able to use their anger to fuel their runs.

What about running when you’re sad? Again, that’s not a good combination for me. I end up working things out emotionally if I’m sad or have sad feelings during a run but I inevitably end up going slower. Actually, come to think of it, maybe I’ve been looking at all of this from the wrong perspective.

This little girl always makes me smile when I see how happy she is to go for a run!

I’ve always thought that it’s not a good idea for me to go for a run if I’m angry or sad because it will distract me in a way that slows down my run. Maybe the speed of my run isn’t the point, though. The bigger point is to work through my anger, frustration, or sadness. If I can accomplish that on a run, who cares if I’m slower. Unless it’s during a race, of course.

I listen to the Another Mother Runner podcast regularly and one of the hosts, Sarah Bowen-Shea has mentioned that she started running when she and her first husband divorced, many years ago. Running can certainly be cathartic for many people going through a rough time in their lives, not just a one-time event, like you get in an argument with someone. Beyond the endorphins being released when you run, there are many other benefits of running. You begin to see positive changes in your body, so your self-esteem increases. If you join a running group, there are the benefits of being part of a group. All of this brings me to the second part of my title about how running effects our mood.

There have been many scientific studies on the effects of running on mood, including one from 1988 titled, “Effects of running and other activities on moods.” This was a study of 70 college undergraduates who participated in running, aerobic dancing, lifting weights, or no physical activity over six weeks. As you might guess, the researchers found that the runners but also the aerobic dancers experienced more positive moods than those in the other groups. A more recent study published in 2019 by researchers at Harvard found a “26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity.” This study wanted to determine whether being physically active can improve emotional well-being, or if we simply move less when we feel sad or depressed. They found the former, people who moved more had a significantly lower risk for major depressive disorder.

It’s interesting how more and more people are realizing this and implementing things like running groups in prisons and therapists and mental health doctors are recommending exercise like walking and running for patients dealing with depression. I know throughout the pandemic, running has definitely been a mood stabilizer for me. Fortunately this past spring, the weather was absolutely gorgeous where I live, and I cherished those moments when I could go for a run outside and clear my head. Even during the hot, humid summer I knew I would always return from a run in a better mood than when I left.

When fall came and cooler weather along with it, I kept running and once again was reminded how beautiful fall is where I live. Even with no end in sight for the pandemic and my patience long ago worn thin, running has kept me going, literally and mentally. Because I’ve been running throughout the entire pandemic, I haven’t gained the COVID-19 extra weight that many other people have. Despite having a major life change on top of the pandemic, I’ve been able to stay optimistic and know that eventually things will get better, thanks in part to running.

What about you? Does anger fuel your runs and make you run faster? Do you go for a run when you’re trying to work through something? Have you been running throughout the pandemic or did you just start running during the pandemic?

Happy running!

Donna

Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

22 thoughts on “The Effect of Mood on Running and the Effect of Running on Mood”

  1. I do not run regularly like I used to do. I’ll run for about 2 minutes, walk 2, run 2, walk 2 but oh, I love hiking and I can equate what you wrote about to my hiking. Anger does fuel my ability to go further, climb higher, and overcome things that would be more difficult when I’m calmer (LOL-does that make sense?). Congratulations on your feats. Way to go!

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    1. That makes perfect sense. I also love to hike and hadn’t thought about anger being fuel for hiking, but I believe your insight is right on track. Looking back, I think there were also times when I was hiking and how much faster I went, or my daughter was hiking with me and she got angry over something and ended up way ahead of me.

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      1. True! I hiked with a group of friends in a club (way too many) and they were so loud in the woods where I enjoy peace and NOT running a race. But yet, I’d pick up my pace to distance myself from all of them at times and probably hiked my best lol.

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  2. I do think anger makes me run faster, maybe due to the mind trying to release the emotional stress it sends that extra energy to my legs?

    I’m with you on running helping to keep my emotions in check during the pandemic. Often it’s the only thing in life that still feels relatively normal and something within my control.

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    1. I think a big part of anger making some people run faster is because of the fight or flight response and release of adrenaline. It would send extra energy to your legs like you said, because your body is trying to literally move away from the perceived danger or whatever is causing the anger. Not sure why it doesn’t work that way with me. Maybe I’m too distracted and instead of just running, I’m thinking too much?

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  3. I’m with you. If I’m angry or stewing over some situation, going for a run helps me burn off the anger and work out how I want to deal with the situation. Running’s also great for writing blog posts in your head. The trick is to keep all your great prose intact until you can make it back home where there’s a pencil or keyboard!

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  4. I listen to AMR all the time.

    I do agree. I didn’t run when I got divorced but that was when I started my first adult sport – tennis. It saved me emotionally and mentally. I wish I had thought to start running then.

    I’m not sure if your mood affects your running but I know that running affects your mood. I run more than before the pandemic and also have not gained any weight (even though I sit for work now more than before). If I am mad or sad, running helps me immensely.

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        1. This was an interesting idea for a post – I’ve not really noticed, or thought about, whether I run faster when I’m happy, sad or otherwise until you raised it! I think for me running is mainly a way to feel (and look) better and so – a few half marathons aside and vaguely monitoring my progress on Strava, etc – I’m not so bothered about the performance side of it. I am slightly fed up that I seem to be getting slower per km as the years go by, though, but maybe I can get my overall speed back up as I get fitter and run further. Anyway, super article, great comments!

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          1. Thank you so much! Even though it’s inevitable that we all slow down when running as we age, we runners can still see all of the benefits from running. For me, all I have to do is look at the people I went to high school with who haven’t stayed active and when I see how badly they’re struggling with their weight and have all kinds of health problems, I see just how important running or just staying active is for long-term health.

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  5. I totally agree that pace is not the point when trying to work out emotions — and that running is good for working out emotions!

    I am one that definitely runs faster when angry. I guess I just get so fired up! Which is a good thing, in some ways, because I’m not naturally fast. Totally works for a race, too, although I’m not sure I’ve really ever started a race truly angry.

    I haven’t gained weight either, but I’ve actually run a lot less. Weight has always been a struggle for me, so that’s much more due to being careful how I eat. I definitely still indulge, but having been fairly overweight much of my life, I know that is somewhere I don’t want to go back to so it’s easier to try to make the healthier choices. Sometimes!

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    1. I agree it can be a good thing to use that anger to your advantage to go faster. I wish I could do that. One of my daughter’s fastest races was one she started out very angry. It was interesting to see her experience with anger fueling her race first-hand.
      Yes, it’s certainly easier to make healthier choices than having to lose weight afterwards. It doesn’t have to be all the time because no one wants to feel deprived but I think diet is hugely important in keeping off extra weight as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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  6. I find that I definitely run faster when I’m angry! There’s something about the pain of running faster that makes me feel ‘something’ and when I’m angry that seems to really help! But completely agree if I’m feeling a bit sad the pace can definitely drop as I get carried away with my thoughts!

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  7. I think some anger does me good when I’m trying to run fast. A little chip on my shoulder doesn’t hurt either. If I’m running easy or long, I can’t settle in very well if I’m feeling off-center.

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  8. I think running usually affects my mood for the better. I was going to say “always”, then I remembered dealing with anxiety on my long runs last fall and summer. I got my 5k PR during a race when I was ticked off at my husband. I was determined to run faster because I didn’t want him to catch up to me! 🙂

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