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!


Book Review- Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance Book by Alex Hutchinson

I’ll cut to the chase here. I absolutely LOVED this book! It’s hands-down one of my favorite running-related books I’ve read in a while. This isn’t just a book for runners, though. It’s a book for any kind of person who is interested in gaining some insight into how the brain influences our bodies when pushed to extreme conditions. Be forewarned, though. If you’re looking for a training manual to help you increase your endurance, this is not the book for that.

There are a lot of scientific references in this book but don’t let that scare you away if you normally don’t like a lot of “science talk.” I’m a scientist and perhaps part of the draw for me was all of the science, but I don’t think it’s too over-the-top for most people. There are plenty of anecdotes and stories told throughout the book to keep things interesting. For example, the backdrop of the entire book is the 2-hour marathon attempt (Breaking2 documentary can be watched here) which the author comes back to every few chapters and helps keep the story going.

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The book itself is divided into three parts. In the first part “Mind and Muscle,” Hutchinson goes through the history of endurance research and the various theories used to explain it:  the “human machine” approach, Tim Noakes’ central governor theory, the psychobiological model by Samuele Marcora, and others. In the second part, “Limits,” he gives specific stories of people who have either intentionally or accidentally pushed or exceeded their limits in various ways such as pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel. Hutchinson vividly describes the experiences of polar explorers, Death Zone climbers, lost desert wanderers, and deep-sea freedivers among others as he looks for indications of which theories of endurance best fit the facts. In the third section, “Limit Breakers,” he explores various new approaches to expanding the apparent boundaries of endurance, ranging from mindfulness and brain training to electric brain stimulation, including accounts of his own experiences with some of them.

The last chapter of the book is about belief. The author states, “One of the key lessons I’ve taken away from writing Endure is that races aren’t just plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles. The reality is far more complex, and I think the first major post-Breaking2 marathon will be a great chance to see the “curious elasticity” of human limits in action.” Back to this chapter in a moment.

This book is 320 pages so it’s not a quick read. I found myself not wanting to put it down and I ended up staying up a bit later than usual sometimes when I read it before bed. Some of the stories are so engaging and thrilling, I found myself so engrossed that I just wanted to hear how the story ended before putting the book away for the night.

My take-away from the book is that we are capable of so much more than we realize. Sometimes our brain is just trying to protect us (if we’re running outside and it’s 90 degrees) but sometimes we have to take control and tell our brain that we CAN do this, whatever the current challenge is, even if it’s hard, or maybe especially if it’s hard. Positive self-talk is no secret and we’ve all heard how important it is for reaching our best effort, but we need to go beyond that if we want to push ourselves further.

I especially like one of the last pages of the chapter “Belief,” where the author states the following:  “This book isn’t a training manual. Still, it’s impossible to explore the nature of human limits without wondering about the best ways to transcend them. In the end, the most effective limit-changers are still the simplest-so simple that we’ve barely mentioned them. If you want to run faster, it’s hard to improve on the training haiku penned by Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, the man whose 1991 journal paper foretold the two-hour-marathon chase:

Run a lot of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while”

Have any of you read this book? Are you interested in our brain’s involvement in pushing ourselves in any sport or activity? Do any of you have book recommendations for me?

Happy running!