The Great Escape: Beating Stress

"I felt like I had no release, no safety valve, at any point from waking to going to bed. I wasn't a pleasant person to be around." Managing the Cancer Centre at one of London's biggest hospitals was starting to take its toll on Claire Levermore, 33.

Regularly working 14-hour days, there was the added emotional burden of seeing people suffering with a serious disease day-in, day-out. Claire knew she had to do something to cope with the pressure, and remembered the enjoyment she got from an activity she had enjoyed as a girl but since lost touch with.

"I love my job, but it was just very demanding at times. When it got to a point where it was too much, I turned to running with the Serpentine Club. I knew I was missing it."

The results? "Two years on, not only am I simply a happier, healthier person, but I've also progressed in my career, having been made Directorate General Manager of Neurosciences across three major hospitals with a £50 million budget."

Doctor’s orders

Whatever the reason for your running regime, one thing's for sure – running can be as good for the mind as it is for the body. "Running is one of the most effective treatments for stress, and in many cases has been proven to be as – if not more – effective than medication," explains Neil Shah, psychotherapist and director of the Stress Management Society (stress.org.uk).

"All too often people look for a cure for stress once the horse has bolted, when it's much healthier to develop ways to deal with stress on a day-to-day level before it gets to that stage," says Shah. "Running is ideal because it's so accessible and achievable – and the mountain of scientific evidence pointing towards its stress-busting properties is growing by the day."

Runner's high - fact or fiction?

Perhaps the most obvious mental boost is the infamous ‘runner's high', now proven by German researchers to be more than a rather pleasant figment of your imagination. University of Bonn neurologists visualised endorphins in the brains of 10 volunteers before and after a two-hour run.

Comparing the pre- and post-run scans, they found evidence of more opiate binding of the happy hormone in the frontal and limbic regions of the brain, areas known to be involved in emotional processing and stress. "There's a direct link between feelings of well-being and running, and for the first time this study proves the physiological mechanism behind that," explains study coordinator Professor Henning Boecker.

The mind-body connection doesn't stop there; stress is a subjective interpretation of events, so while you might attack your computer for crashing, others simply put it down to experience. "Your brain's ability to process stimuli and order them is key to understanding what triggers stress, and in turn helps deal with the cause," explains Shah.

Give a little, get a lot

Researchers from Illinois University in the USA found that an improvement of only five per cent in cardio-respiratory fitness from running led to an improvement of up to 15 per cent in mental tests and ability to deal with the causes of stress. Running actually builds new brain cells in the hippocampus, the region responsible for memory, which deteriorates from the age of 30.

"It boosts blood flow – and in turn, oxygen – to your brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, explaining how exercise helps ward off Alzheimer's," says study author Professor Arthur Kramer. "There's also the rhythmical, relaxing nature of the exercise, which helps different elements of the brain connect better."

Run away from stress

And when it comes to rhythm, running knows no equal. "Stress makes your heart beat faster, which leads to shallow, fast breathing, a build-up of CO2 and a lack of oxygen in the brain, leading to more stress," explains Shah. "Running actually forces you to regulate your breathing, as well as to breathe deeper to expel any lingering CO2 – both key methods used to alleviate stress in non-runners; you're practicing proven clinical techniques without knowing it."

And according to University of Bristol psychologists, expanding your lungs lifts your diaphragm, taking pressure off the nerve centre in your solar plexus and relieving the stress on your central nervous system.

Get some Zzzzs

All too often, the problem with stress is finding the ‘off' switch, and without sufficient sleep, that just isn't possible, according to Professor Jim Horne from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University.

"Reducing regular sleep by just one hour each night can lead to a spike in cortisol, the natural stress hormone, which can prevent deep, regenerative sleep, making it even harder to sleep. It's a vicious circle," he explains. "Exercise is the one factor that has been shown to redress that imbalance." Mile repeats might just be the answer.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers asked sedentary insomnia sufferers to jog for just 20 to 30 minutes every other day. The result? The time required to fall asleep was halved, and sleep time increased by almost one hour. "Running outside also exposes you to daylight, which helps get your circadian rhythm back in synch," Horne explains.

Buddy Up

Not only this, but the social side of your club could also be doing you as much good as the actual running. University of California researchers found that socialising releases the hormone oxytocin, which buffers the ‘fight or flight' response to calm you down.

A nine-year study from Harvard Medical School found those with the most friends cut their risk of death by more than 60 per cent, reducing blood pressure and strengthening their immune system. The results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends is as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight. Add in some running and you'll be fighting fit until a truly ripe old age.


YOUR BODY UNDER STRESS (Or six more reasons to run...)

Whether you're facing an irate boss or an escaped tiger, your body reacts in exactly the same way. "There is only one stress response, and how chronic that is depends on your physiology and you're perception of the threat," says Neil Shah. From brain ache to tight muscles, RW leads you through the stress path your body endures when you feel the strain.

Automatic Nervous System
Your body's housekeeper. You never know it's there, but without it you couldn't function."It controls everything from heart beat to digestion," says Shah. It's divided into two systems – sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (relax)."Chronic stress prevents your body from separating them, so you just can't relax," he says.

Brain
Because stress is necessary, everyone has a built-in gauge to control our reaction to it. But you can become over-sensitive to aggravations. In this hothouse of hyper-reactivity, bio-chemicals unleashed by stress may boil over at the most trivial of events."Without your usually sound rationalising processes, you become vulnerable to self-medicating behaviours such as smoking or overeating."

Heart
Before a key race, you don't have to be going at full pelt for your ticker to be in overdrive."The cortisol and high blood sugar pumping through your system mean your heart is prepped to hit full throttle," explains Professor Angela Clow, a stress expert from Westminster University."Think of it like revving a car engine – you can physically react quicker as your body's primed."

Intestines
When you need all your energy to break out of the jaws of that escaped tiger, your stomach's the last thing you need. "All the blood and energy gets diverted to your skeletal muscles, leaving your gut without the blood flow it needs to deal with food," says Clow. Which explains that upset stomach."If you're regularly stressed, you can't digest food properly, so it's stored as fat."

Genitals
"It's estimated that over two thirds of men will suffer from erectile dysfunction at some point in their life, and the stress of actually suffering from it can make matters worse," explains Shah."It's not actually a muscle, so all the blood flows away to other more important muscles – the last thing you're thinking about when under threat is reproducing."

Muscles
Like your heart, your skeletal muscles are also primed for action."Your muscles tense involuntarily, especially around your upper back, causing knots and tension headaches," says Clow. This is caused by consistent feelings of stress, limiting circulation and oxygen supply."Eventually you develop a destructive muscle memory, which actually prevents them from working properly."


Getty Images

RUNNING WORKS

Almost half of drivers name their daily commute to work as the most stressful aspect of their lives, according to recent data from the Stress Management Association. By running, you'll be less stressed and get fitter into the bargain. Follow these self-powered commute tips for best results.

Take it easy
Don't just add running to work to your daily to-do list, says Paula Coates, author of Running Repairs (A&C Black). "It shouldn't be a rigid rule, so you can take days off." And don't try to beat your run-to-work PB. "This will add pressure."

Mix it up
Running a different route everyday will keep you motivated. Go to sustrans.org.uk to find 12,000 miles of traffic-free routes near you. Come up with four different routes of roughly similar length, advises Coates. "Throw a dice to decide which one to do each morning to add an element of spontaneity and safety."

Stay safe
See yourself as a cyclist, Coates says. "Cars don't look out for runners in the same way they do cyclists, so you need to be extra vigilant and make yourself seen," As well as reflective strips, click on some LEDs. Try Brooks' magnetic NightLife (£4.99, brooksrunning.co.uk).

Pack it in
Running to and from work is all about preparation, Coates says. "Try to take your week's clothing into work on the bus so you don't have to worry about carrying much on your run," she says. "If there aren't showers at work, see if there's a gym or public pool nearby – smelling like old socks won't help anything."

Weigh up your backpack
Look for a running pack with a waist and chest strap to reduce too much movement. The packs with mesh structural supports between your spine and the pack are ideal, because they distribute the weight away from the spine, preventing chafing and impact bruising, allowing you to carry what you need without affecting your running stride and pace.

"When I'm running well, everything goes well"
Andy Gwyther, 35, Sevenoaks, Tax specialist partner at international accounting firm Deloitte

In 2005 someone signed me up for a 5K race as a joke because I was the fat boy of the office. I decided to rise to the challenge, did some sneaky training and actually felt great on the day. I carried on from there. I have been training with running coach Keith Anderson (fullpotential.co.uk) for three years now. I'm four stone lighter and closing in on a sub-three-hour marathon PB.

In the last three years I went through the tough process of gaining promotion to be made partner at the company, and I think that’s when I really realised how important my running is as a fuel for the rest of my life – I love my job, but I'm constantly making important decisions and dealing with sticking points to make sure important projects with major international companies run smoothly, leading my team as well as dealing with clients.

My life’s one big juggling act: I work long hours; I can suddenly get called abroad for meetings; I have work dinners and drinks regularly; and I have my two daughters to look after two nights a week. There’s a direct correlation between my running, work and life in general – when I’m running well, everything goes well. Whenever there have been periods when I’ve stopped running, and this is when work can get on top of me, I feel tired and what is normally a thoroughly enjoyable job becomes anything but.

Each week I clock around 40 miles, one longer two-hour run at weekends, an hour-long threshold session, a 10K hills session and a 45-minute recovery run, along with a full gym session cross-training and focusing on my core. Because I have relatively little time, Keith makes sure that each session is focused on achieving something and not just doing a run for the sake of it. Having a training goal also stops me de-prioritising training and skipping sessions when under pressure to do so.



"Running gives me time to unwind"
Pauline Munro, 40, Leeds, Partner at Pinsent Masons, an international commercial law firm

I only really started running when I was at university to keep fit and to break the long days of study. I guess I've had the bug since then. I've got a 10K PB of 35:54, and in my time I've won a variety of medals at Northern and Yorkshire levels with Bingley Harriers (bingleyharriers.org.uk), and have had County and England vests on the fells.

I’m married with two daughters, one and three years old, with all that involves, as well as working as a partner in a major law firm, so every minute is precious. With work, I frequently defend major global corporations and can be called away last minute for meetings all over the country, which makes life really tricky. With kids, you don't have the luxury of working late in the office to get work done, which means home life gets muddied with working late into the night after finishing all the family stuff.

This makes my running that much more important as a pressure valve – some time for me to unwind, relax and get my thoughts together. But as these other pressures started mounted up, I was running tired all the time simply from trying to do too much.

Through guidance from Sarah Rowell (former Olympic marathon runner) I came to understand the concept of quality over quantity. I had been approaching my running on the basis of fitting in as much as I could in between working, rather than thinking about how I could improve my game in the time I had available, taking into account the increasing demands of my job.

My weekly mileage has gone down from around 70 to 50 miles, but I still compete at a senior level on a serious basis when time permits. I have always had to be creative about when I run, but even more so now. At the weekend my husband and I have to tag-team run in the mornings so that someone’s always at home.

When I come back from a run I’m focused and raring to go. I ran through both my pregnancies and even with the girls, pushing a buggy. Running is part of my life – my working life and my family life.