How Running Helped Me Handle the Stress of Daily Life

by Jonathan Meadows

As I sit at a table in the hotel restaurant and watch the waitress pour me a coffee, my outward appearance is calm. Little does she know my mind is processing 100 thoughts a second about everything that has been over the last 6 months and everything that could be over the next 6 hours.

It’s 7am and in 3 hours I’m due to cross the start line of the Frankfurt Marathon. In just over another 3 hours, I plan to cross the finish line. My mind is replaying random training session highlights and then jumping to scenarios that could possibly play out over the 42.1 kilometers that await me on the streets of Frankfurt.

It goes without saying that running trains the body, but running also trains the mind and can teach you a lot about yourself. Think about the person you were before you started doing regular exercise how did you handle stress? How did you handle your emotions? Think about the person you are now, the regular exerciser how do you handle them now? I’ll take a guess and assume that you handle things much better than before.

Two people running together

While marathon-specific training, especially the long run, have prepared me physically and mentally for the marathon, it has also taught me a lot about myself, mainly what I am actually capable of. Over the course of training for my various marathons, I’ve learned how to handle big challenges, how to keep going when things get tough and that I can achieve what I set out to do. A key learning from my marathon training, which I apply in everyday life, is that your outlook is everything.

How you look at a problem will determine your perspective on the problem and your ability to handle the challenge that’s in front of you. You can either bury your head in the sand and say you can’t do it, or you can tell yourself it’s possible and that you’ll find a way. However, if you decide to take up marathon running, ‘finding a way’ may come easier to you. A recent study found that the brains of distance runners had more connections in areas of the brain linked to higher cognitive functions, compared to the brains of healthy people who were sedentary – another benefit of running!

Building mental toughness

Being mentally tough and marathon running go hand in hand. Through pushing yourself further on and the ever-increasing long run, you learn to handle the feelings of being overwhelmed with doubts and fears about the distance ahead of you. The good news is that you don’t have to run a marathon to learn how to adapt and cope better with the stresses and challenges life likes to throw at us. Simply by running and gaining the experience of challenging yourself, you’re already becoming a more emotionally resilient and emotionally intelligent person. Skills that are now deemed necessary in the modern era due to the constant stress we’re subject to. Whether it’s workplace stress, family stress, our inability to switch off due to endless notifications from our smartphones or even the fear of missing out on that latest ‘must see’ series on Netflix we’re constantly told we need to binge watch. 

While these phrases might sound like some new-age buzzwords, they’ve actually become hot topics in recent years. Especially in the workplace and they are even something that’s taught at Google to its employees. This is, in part, because we live in an era of always being on the go, increased demands on our time by always being available and being surrounded by constant notifications. When I say emotional resilience, I don’t mean you lack or are unable to show emotions, but that you’re mentally stronger and can bounce back from setbacks easily. I believe running teaches us these skills and that a runner can’t be successful without displaying or learning mental toughness (as well as a liking for a healthy dose of physical hard work).

The ability to acknowledge and manage your own emotions, understand why you feel what you do, as well as being aware of the emotions of other people are traits of people with high emotional intelligence. A study by psychologists at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom found that runners with higher levels of emotional intelligence experienced more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions throughout a 175-mile ultramarathon. If you’re able to realise why you’re feeling a certain way, you can then use this to help analyse the situation and then turn it into a more positive experience. Remember when I said outlook is key? Happiness and enjoyment don’t come directly from outside events, but from how we perceive and interpret them. Runners usually focus all their energy on their physical training, when their mindset is arguably just as important. To put it another way, your training will only get you so far. 

A woman and a man running intervals outside

Stressed out

Feeling under pressure and stressed is a result of something happening to you that exceeds your brain’s ability to cope with what is happening in that very instant. The marathon has taught me to instantly take a step back when I feel stressed or under pressure; diving in further or going full steam ahead without thinking isn’t going to improve any given situation or result in it ending well. Over the course of a long run and the marathon itself, being in tune with how you’re feeling is vital to completing it. When running such a long distance, the option to ignore how you’re feeling doesn’t exist. If things start to go wrong (and they do), you need to decide quickly how to fix the situation, or to find the mental toughness to get yourself through the rough patches in order to complete the distance. I’ve found this is also a skill that is transferable to everyday life when it comes to facing challenges.

However, running is also a great way to destress in itself. I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling during a run of being totally lost in your thoughts, finding flow or zoning out during a run. Only to realise you’ve not heard the Runtastic app in a while and you’re more relaxed. Having solved or processed whatever problems you have and you end up finishing your run happier than when you started. While a long run might last 2 hours or more for me, I find I spend a lot of time during the run in a meditative state lost in my thoughts. Running might just hold all the answers after all!

Aerial shot of a group of runners on a country road

What the marathon has taught me

The key learnings the marathon distance has taught me about handling stress, not shutting down or instantly reacting is to always mentally take a step back, get some perspective and process the situation. I often ask myself what do I need to do? Do I truly need to act now? Will this action improve the situation? Is this situation even within my control? I try to view the situation from these different perspectives before doing anything. Then I do my best to make a decision. It has also taught me to break things down into smaller chunks. A marathon is far, but if you break it into sections or even 1km at a time, it seems much more manageable. Lastly it’s taught me simply how to dig deep and just keep on going when things get tough sometimes it’s just that simple! In the end, running is what you make it. In the end, running is what you make it.

The clock says 3:10:30 as I cross the finish line of the Frankfurt Marathon. I move through the finishing chute and collect my medal and then venture into the recovery area to grab a banana and the all-important post-run (non-alcoholic) beer. I sit in an open area to the side of the recovery area which is already occupied by some other exhausted-looking runners, and I sit down near them. As I sit down, I feel myself enter a state of catharsis. I’m off the mental rollercoaster that was the last 42.1 kilometers. The mental games are over, the internal dialogue is silenced and the physical challenge has been met. Running a marathon isn’t supposed to be easy, but if you’re able to control your mindset and internal monologue, it’ll be a lot easier.

If you’ve taken up running, ran a marathon and learned some life lessons through your training or race day, let us know in the comments below!

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