Running Actually Isn’t Therapy
Going for a run may feel therapeutic in the short-term, but you can’t outrun your issues.
The hashtag #runningismytherapy has been used on over 1.1 million posts—including my own. Once I started running, it became one of my go-to methods of dealing with my emotions; it wiped my mind for however long I kept moving, keeping me from dwelling on negative thoughts and leaving me feeling a little less stuck (whether that was related to work stress or personal drama) than I had been before.
The mental health benefits of running are a huge part of why I stick with this sport, and I think that’s pretty common within the running community—just look at the prevalence of memes, bumper stickers, and shirts with lines like “running is cheaper than therapy” or “running away from my problems.” But with 51 percent of Americans rating mental health as one of their top health concerns, according to a 2022 Ipsos Global Health Service Monitor survey, and after spending the better part of this year in therapy myself, I’ve started wondering if equating running with therapy is a little misleading.
There’s no doubt that running can be therapeutic: Not only can it be a form of escapism, providing distraction from your problems, it’s scientifically proven to boost your mood and reduce stress. And studies have found regular aerobic exercise to be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
But something that’s therapeutic and therapy are two different things, says Amanda Childs, PhD., a staff psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “If someone has a mental health condition or something that would benefit from being addressed in therapy,” she explains, “no amount of running is going to replace the benefits of seeing a therapist and understanding what’s contributing to whatever challenges they’re facing in their day to day.” One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and before you get hung up on the term “mental illness,” keep in mind that two of the most common mental health illnesses are anxiety disorders and depression.
Running is not (yet) a treatment for any mental health illness, according to current guidelines from groups like the American Psychiatric Association and the American College of Physicians. What running can be is a coping mechanism, or a strategy used under stress to help manage difficult emotions.
“Running can give you time away from a problem or time to think about a problem, but it’s not actually solving the problem,” says Natalie Horne, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at Checkpoint Wellness in Denver, CO. “What makes therapy therapy is having a trained professional there to help you gain awareness of unhelpful patterns of thinking or feeling or acting, and to help you challenge and change those patterns if they aren't working for you,” she explains—and it’s hard to do that kind of work in your own head, because, most of the time, people are simply unable to identify that they’re even engaging in an unhelpful way of thinking.
And what happens when running gets taken away? Sixty-six percent of runners sustained at least one injury during a 2-year observational period, a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine determined, but injuries aren’t the only circumstance that can lead to forced time off from the sport. “There are times in your life when running might not be there for you and you’re left with all the same stressors, anxiety, and challenges—what do you do? How do you cope then?” asks Childs.
Relying on any one thing as your only coping mechanism can be dangerous. Picture the runner who runs every day, no matter how their body feels, because it’s their only escape from the stress of work; or the runner who always works at their max intensity because it’s the only way to keep pervasive negative thoughts at bay. Those runners are likely to end up with—at best—an overuse injury, because they’re constantly over-stressing their body. Stress is stress, physical or emotional; your body can’t tell the difference.
“What makes therapy therapy is having a trained professional there to help you gain awareness of unhelpful patterns of thinking or feeling or acting, and to help you challenge and change those patterns if they aren't working for you.”
Using running in lieu of therapy can also enforce bad habits and disordered thinking. “Part of what therapy does is build awareness and insight to our thought patterns and habits,” says Childs. “Without therapy to bring that awareness and insight when you’re lost in your head on a run, you could be driving yourself down a maladaptive path.” Despite your intentions, ruminating on the same negative thought patterns without doing anything to change them may actually worsen certain issues.
Plus, the hashtag #runningistherapy—and the mentality it supports—can be problematic in that it “sends a message to people who are seeking actual therapy that they’ve somehow failed to manage their own mental health,” says Horne. “It perpetuates this stigma around therapy.”
None of this is to say running isn’t a powerful tool that can be used to improve your mental health. But I think it’s important runners acknowledge it’s not the only option, or a replacement for actual help. “We should all have a variety of tools, and that’s exactly what therapy does: It helps you find a variety of tools—and running can certainly be one of them—to manage difficult situations, whether that’s day-to-day stressors or overwhelming emotions,” says Horne.
If you’ve been using running as a coping mechanism, it may be time to think more about your “why.” “You have to ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to get out of this run?’” says Childs. “If you’re doing it to feel better and you come back from the run and that high wears off and you’re still feeling lost, confused, sad, anxious, or having a hard time coping with what’s in front of you, that’s an indication that there’s more going on than running can fix.”
Horne recommends that runners look at how they’re using exercise within a bigger picture. “I like to use the 80/20 rule, in that 80 percent of the time we like to rely on one way (i.e. running) to handle feeling stressed or overwhelmed, but the other 20 percent of the time, we have other ways to manage difficult emotions,” says Horne. “If that ratio starts to get too skewed, that’s a yellow or red flag to me.”
The issue I have with this pervasive idea that #runningistherapy is that we’ve over-exaggerating the connection between our mileage and our mental health. There’s absolutely a link—and I’ve personally experienced how running can be a reset button, a meditative outlet, and a way of connecting to others when dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression. But you can’t outrun all your issues.
What you can do is confront them head-on. And the best way to do that is with a trained professional who can help you get to the bottom of whatever it is that you’re really dealing with, whether it’s a short-term issue or a clinical condition. Then, you’ll be equipped with multiple coping strategies and mechanisms to deal with your emotions—so you can use running in a healthy way.
Article One x Ciele
This collab isn’t new, but the retro aviator aesthetic is so fun and I much prefer the new-to-me mirrored “Red Rocks” lenses to the less opaque black and green lenses I’ve tried in the past. I kept reaching for these over the past week, not just because they look so cool but because I was so impressed by the clarity of the GTGlass lenses, which are made from a durable lightweight polymer plastic. Plus, they’re polarized with an anti-reflective coating that blocks 100% UVA/UVB rays—all non-negotiables from a protection standpoint. They’re not as light as some of my go-to running sunglasses, but the sticky, moldable nose pads and rubber temple tips kept them from bouncing.
The Best Running Shoe for Avoiding Injuries
I feel like a broken record any time someone asks me for a running shoe rec and I send them to their local running store to physically try on pairs to figure out which one feels best. There’s always a lot of hype around the “right” running shoes—ones that will help you avoid injury or mitigate any current issues. But “most evidence demonstrates no reduction in lower-limb running injuries in adults when comparing different types of running shoes,” an August 2022 analysis by The Cochrane Library determined. Translation: Wear what feels best on your foot.
Hyperice Venom 2
I guess I’ve reached the age where slouching on my couch all day will destroy my back, so I was thrilled to remember I had the latest Hyperice Venom heat wrap sitting in my closet. This device velcros around your body and (allegedly) heats up six times faster than a standard heating pad, and uses three levels of heat paired with three vibration patterns to soothe sore muscles and relieve stress. I don’t know if it actually improved my back pain from a scientific perspective, but the heat plus the percussive therapy felt SO. GOOD. It’s a little bulky so I didn’t love actually doing things in it, but it was absolute heaven while I was basically incapacitated on my couch.
La Sportiva Cyklon Cross GTX Shoe
I loved the OG Cyklon, and I’ve been waiting for weather that warranted testing the winterized version. Denver delivered last week with sub-zero (Farenheit!) temperatures and several inches of snow. The integrated gaiter and waterproof upper with Gore-Tex kept my feet totally dry and mostly warm during over two hours of running. I especially loved the single Boa system, which eliminated the need for tie-up lacing inside the gaiter and allowed for a super snug fit. My only complaint was the super narrow toe box, which squeezed my outside toes to the point of discomfort during the course of my long run.
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YES. This is one of the hills I will die on.
hmmm.. this is about the 100th sign I should see a therapist. 😅