10 ways running can make you a happier person

We runners are generally a happy bunch. A 20-year study of long-term marathon runners found they experienced less depression, anger, tension, confusion and fatigue compared with the general population. Other research has found that regular exercisers are less anxious, more positive and more resilient in the face of stress. There’s no doubting the many mental health benefits we already gain from lacing up, but could applying the latest scientific findings on happiness make our smiles even wider, both in and out of our trainers?

Action for Happiness, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to building a happier society, has conducted extensive research into what makes people flourish. ‘When we think of happiness, we tend to think about short-term pleasure, like the runner’s high,’ says Vanessa King, the lead psychologist for Action for Happiness. ‘But the concept of eudaimonia relates more to pursuing fulfillment and satisfaction than euphoric joy. We need both for a happy life.’

Last year, Action for Happiness published a list of 10 evidence-based keys to happier living, and running can help you find them all. ‘The 10 keys are a synthesis of the research on what makes us happy – highlighting areas where we can take action or make choices that have been shown to increase happiness,’ says King, author of Ten Keys to Happier Living and also a runner. ‘I see it as a menu, not a prescription, as we all need different things and at different times.’

Indeed, one of the keys is exercise, so it would be easy to assume you’re ticking that box. But the reason exercise contributes to happiness goes beyond an endorphin-driven buzz. ‘Taking care of your body has a positive effect on the mind,’ says King. ‘Exercise is a method of looking after yourself.’ It’s quite possible to be a runner without doing that, however – pushing yourself too hard, ignoring niggles and denying your body the recovery and nutrients it needs. It’s an example of how a few tweaks to your attitude and, perhaps, your training, could help you maximise the benefits you derive from running and move you further along the road to happiness.

1/ GIVING: Do things for others

When Matthew Rees saw David Wyeth on the verge of collapse less than 300m from the finish line of this year’s London Marathon, he abandoned his own race goals to help a stranger to the finish. ‘He had come so far and after 26 miles of running I wanted to make sure he made the finish,’ says Rees. Later, downplaying an act that captured media attention worldwide, he commented that such acts of kindness happen routinely in the running community. That’s good, because research published in the International Journal of Behavioural Medicine suggests helping others boosts not just the recipient’s happiness, but the person offering assistance, too. ‘Helping others provides a sense of meaning, gives feelings of competence and improves mood,’ says King. ‘It also takes our minds off our own troubles.’ This has been dubbed the ‘helper’s high’ and, intriguingly, it appears to be contagious. ‘Research has shown that observing someone doing something kind or thoughtful, or being on the receiving end of it ourselves, inspires us to follow suit,’ says King.

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Start small: People often worry that they don’t have time to volunteer or help others, but being more giving doesn’t have to involve grand gestures. ‘Just a smile is an act of giving,’ says King. Think about the small things you could do right now – one study found that when people performed five acts of kindness, one day a week for six weeks, their wellbeing increased. ‘Offer a fellow runner a few words of encouragement as you pass each other or congratulate someone’s achievements on social media,’ suggests mental-performance coach Midgie Thompson.

Put your hand up: Research by volunteering charity Join In found regular volunteers in sport had 10 per cent higher levels of self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience compared with those who had never volunteered. Eighty-seven per cent of volunteers said it gave their life more meaning.

Give back: Help get a new runner – or runners – started. Contact Run Together to find out how to set up your own group. ‘I took a friend to her first parkrun a few years back – she celebrated her 70th last week,’ says Thompson. ‘She’s become part of something she never imagined she’d be part of and is trying to inspire others to become part of it too.’

Downer alert

It’s great to be generous with your time and energy but make sure you leave time for yourself too. Research shows the happiness and health correlation with altruism only exists when you aren’t overwhelmed by tasks.

2/ POSITIVITY: Look for what is good

A Polish study at Gdansk University found athletes had a more optimistic outlook than non-athletes; this glass-half-full approach to life contributes to greater mental wellbeing. ‘It’s not about being in denial when bad things happen, it’s simply about trying to focus on the good in any situation rather than the negatives,’ says King. ‘It’s our thoughts and interpretations of events, not the events themselves, that drive our emotions.’

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Seek positives: They can be found in every run and race. Perhaps you ran without walking, you met a friendly dog, you felt the sun on your face or you caught up with friends. ‘It doesn’t always have to be about performance,’ says professor Andy Lane, a sport psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton who has conducted research on the benefits of natural environments on mental state.

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Fixating on what went wrong takes the joy out of running and adds pressure to your next outing. ‘Ask yourself what went right,’ says Thompson. Focusing on the positives will make you feel happier and doesn’t mean you can’t learn from your mistakes and do better next time.

3/ RESILIENCE: Find ways to bounce back

Resilience is increasingly being recognised as an important life skill, says Thompson. Yes, skill, not characteristic, because it can be learned. And in other good news, research also suggests that some of the neurological changes caused by running can help increase our resilience. One study found that participating in a 12-week running programme reduced heart rate and blood pressure in response to a stressful mental arithmetic test. Other research looked at executives who had experienced a stressful event; it found those who exercised the most displaying the least-intense physical and psychological symptoms of stress. But it can be a double-edged sword. ‘Many runners tick off a lot of their [happiness] keys through running,’ says King. ‘If something happens that means they can’t run, what happens then?’ A psychological tool called ‘If/then planning’ helps to arm you with coping strategies. ‘It’s about thinking of the measures you could take to cope with or alleviate a bad situation,’ King explains. ‘If you were to get injured, think how you might be able get the positives you derive from running elsewhere – would it be volunteering with your club to keep up social connection? Would it be reading up on different training methods to avoid future injuries, or taking the opportunity to try a new sport while you can’t run? All of us experience tough times in our lives but how we respond to them is what influences our wellbeing.’

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If/then planning: Spend some time thinking about how you’d cope with scenarios where you have to forgo your trainers for a period, such as illness or injury.

Tools at the ready: Think about what’s helped you recover from tough times – being in nature, helping others or socialising – so you build up strategies that will help you bounce back.

See the big picture: Keep your running in perspective. ‘It’s not the end of the world if you don’t achieve your goal,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself initially, but then move on.’

Downer alert

Be clear that resilience doesn’t mean you have to pretend everything is OK. That can be counterproductive so don’t be afraid to express how you are feeling or ask for help. ‘Resilience is not about being macho,’ says Lane.

4/ COMMUNITY: Connect with others

Relationships are essential for happiness. Being connected with and feeling close to family and friends is the core, but our broader social networks also confer a sense of belonging. ‘Connection with others is a basic human need,’ says King. As a runner you’re part of a global community, but it’s the smaller sub-communities within that which truly make you feel like you belong. ‘parkrun is the perfect example,’ says King. ‘It’s as much about being there on a Saturday morning as about the run itself.’ Seeing all those smiling faces on the finish line boosts the likelihood of you feeling happier, too, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. The 134,000+ members of running clubs will attest to how much they gain from belonging to a like-minded group: not just great running buddies, advice and routes but also support, encouragement and the social interaction. ‘You’re sharing the same experiences and that is both uplifting and motivating,’ says Thompson.

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Join up: Joining a group or club is one of the easiest ways to become part of a running community (see British Athletics or Run Together). Or get involved in your local parkrun or GoodGym.

Give kudos: Virtual communities can be just as powerful, says Thompson. If you prefer to – or need to – train alone you can connect with others through networks such as Strava.

Downer alert

Don’t let your commitment to running and the community around it become an obsession that crowds out family and non-running friends. Be flexible and considerate about how your running fits in with your loved ones and you’ll all be happier.

5/ EXERCISE: Take care of your body

As a runner you’ll be familiar with the pleasure of basking in a postrun glow. You may assume that the buzz is all down to exercise-triggered feel-good hormones, but Dr John Ratey, author of Spark: How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain believes it’s more complex. ‘In addition to feeling good when you exercise, you feel good about yourself and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area in the brain,’ says Ratey. Numerous studies have shown that even a single run can boost mood and the benefits accrue over time, so exercise has both an acute and a long-term effect on mental health. ‘When you’re pursuing running goals, you have a good reason to improve other aspects of your lifestyle, too,’ adds Thompson. ‘You’re more likely to adopt other healthy habits.’

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Mix it up: Ensure your runs are varied in length and effort level so you get a range of physical benefits and don’t overstress one system. Researchers haven’t definitively isolated the perfect type of run to elicit the runner’s high, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, suggests that it’s likely to be a run that hits the sweet spot – challenging enough to gain a sense of accomplishment but not so challenging that it takes you too far outside your comfort zone.

Cross-train: It will reduce injury risk and add balance and variety to your training.

Look after yourself: ‘Running can be the focal point of this, but it’s not the only thing,’ says Lane. ‘Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep and listen to your body. This will make you feel better and improve your running health.’

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Our bodies need rest as much as they need physical activity. ‘Overdoing it when you’re ill or injured isn’t good and could impact on other keys, for example, setting and achieving goals,’ says King. Make peace with taking a break when you need to. Last year, a Brazilian study found that runners with signs of exercise addiction who had to stop for two weeks had a significant decrease in happiness, showing increased levels of depression, confusion, anger and fatigue. ‘If it isn’t making you happy, ask yourself what you’re getting out of it,’ says Thompson.

6/ AWARENESS: Notice what’s going on around you

Becoming more mindful and aware of the world around us does wonders for our well-being, according to findings by Action for Happiness. Running gives us the opportunity to do so, putting us in the moment, detached from our daily worries. Research suggests that this distraction can play a key role in reducing anxiety. ‘The structure running provides can help you gain a sense of control,’ says King. And you get bonus happy points if you can get to the park: research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found people who exercised for 90 minutes in natural grassland showed decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with depression and negative emotions compared with those who exercised in a high-traffic urban setting.

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Go green: Make some runs green (in the countryside or parks) or blue (near water) to boost the feel-good factor.

Take it easy: ‘If you want to get the stress-busting benefits of exercise, keep your intensity low,’ says Lane. ‘Running high-intensity intervals won’t allow you to really take in your surroundings,’ says King. ‘And try to notice something specific, such as colour, trees or birdsong.’

Downer alert

‘Listening to music can contribute to your happiness while you run, but it can also cut you off from the world around you, making running somewhat mindless,’ says Thompson. ‘You’re not hearing your thoughts or listening to your body’s signals.’

7/ LEARNING: Keep trying new things

Learning new skills and exposing ourselves to new experiences can boost your mental health in many ways. ‘It satisfies a natural sense of curiosity,’ says Thompson. ‘Think how alert and aware you are when you’re exploring a new place in comparison with when you’re on your daily commute. Something new engages the brain.’ What’s more, when we try something new successfully, it gives us a sense of ‘mastery,’ which boosts self-esteem. It could be as small as trying a new route and discovering it’s more scenic than your usual one, or as big and dramatic as transforming your running technique. In the long term, learning also improves connections between neurons, helping to stave off cognitive decline. It’s easy to get set in our ways or think we know all we need to about running, but try to keep your mind open. ‘There are so many aspects of running we can learn about,’ says Thompson. ‘Nutrition, recovery, cross-training, form, different types of race…’

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Start now: Do something different in your running for the first time today (unless you have an important race imminent).

Ring the changes: Commit to trying something new by the end of the year – enter a fell race, try a Canicross event, or add yoga to your regime.

Learn from mistakes: ‘When something doesn’t go to plan, consider what went wrong and how you could prevent it happening in the future,’ says Thompson. ‘That way, it’s been a valuable learning experience.’

Downer alert

Don’t take on too many new things at once. Trying to master a new distance, become fat-adapted and change your running technique at the same time will more than likely leave you feeling stressed, not invigorated.

8/ DIRECTION: Set goals to work towards

Having goals to work towards gives life direction and focus, both of which are vital for happiness. ‘Most of us are achievement-orientated,’ says Thompson. ‘When we are successful in reaching our goals it’s very empowering.’ Going for goals won’t always feel good in the moment – all-out 200m repeats may not feel pleasurable as you run them – but the fact that it’s taking you closer to your sub-20 5K goal feels good.

‘Having clarity about why you’re doing what you’re doing is very important because happiness is gauged by how near or far we are from achieving our goals,’ says Lane. ‘But running goals don’t have to be defined by time or distance (aka ‘outcome goals’), they can be ‘process goals’ about the experience itself. For example, enjoying a beautiful environment or working on your form to improve your speed.’ Goals need to be challenging enough to excite us but not so unrealistic as to feel unachievable. ‘When people don’t achieve the goals they’ve set themselves, running can become a source of unhappiness,’ warns Lane. Setting three-tier goals – gold, silver and bronze – can raise the chances of experiencing a positive outcome.

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Take the first step: Think of a goal and identify the first step towards it. If it’s a mountain marathon, research options and sign up. If it’s a sub-2:00 half marathon, find a training programme. ‘But remember, a goal doesn’t have to be a race or a PB,’ says Thompson. ‘You could aim to explore all the footpaths within a three-mile radius of your home, do core work twice a week or run every day for a month. Make sure your goal is meaningful to you, not others.’

Plan your journey: Once you’ve established your goal, create a plan to reach it. ‘Small steps – or ‘proximal goals’ help you map out your route,’ says King. Each time the gap narrows between your starting point and where you want to end up, you get a mood boost, adds Lane.

Downer alert

While having mini goals to tick off on the way to your big goal is helpful, setting multiple goals, which may conflict with each other or place too many demands on your time, is counterproductive. ‘In running terms, you can’t train for a 5K PB and a marathon at the same time,’ says Lane.

9/ ACCEPTANCE: Be comfortable with yourself

Most of us are tougher on ourselves than we are on others. We think about what we lack, and what we’re not good at, rather than our strengths, and that makes the road to happiness far bumpier. ‘Learning to accept ourselves increases our enjoyment of life,’ says King. ‘It also teaches us to be more accepting of others.’ Sport’s competitive element makes it all too easy to compare yourself to others. ‘But that means you’re always judging yourself as better than, worse than or equal to someone else,’ says Thompson. Social media platforms that allow us to share and compare every run with our peers can feed into this constant self-evaluation. ‘Some days you’re quicker, other days you’re slower. It’s all OK,’ says Lane.

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Accept where you are: ‘You might not be as fast as you were last year, or before an injury, but you can only work with where you are right now,’ says Thompson.

Have self-compassion: Next time you’re criticising yourself for your performance, imagine saying those things to a fellow runner. ‘If you were pacing someone you’d be saying really positive things – offering tips and encouragement,’ says Lane. ‘Treat yourself the same way.’

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Acceptance doesn’t mean not wanting to improve or letting yourself off the hook. ‘It’s not about just being content with where you are and not having any desire to improve,’ says Thompson. Acknowledge both your strengths and weaknesses, and see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and not a stick to beat yourself with.

10/ MEANING: Be a part of something bigger

We all need to feel there is meaning to our lives. ‘Research shows people who derive a sense of purpose from what they do are happier, feel more in control and gain more pleasure from it,’ says King. Running offers us purpose both on a personal level – through striving to achieve goals – and also because it makes us feel as if we are part of something bigger.

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Run and become: ‘Humans are inherently social,’ says Lane. ‘We form groups built on shared goals, values and passions. Running gives us a group to belong to.’ That almost imperceptible nod of recognition you get when you pass another runner reminds you that while you may be out pounding the pavements on your own, you aren’t alone.

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Make sure you don’t let your running stagnate in terms of personal goals, or isolate yourself from the wider running community. A great way to connect is to take part in events, experiencing the collective sense of shared toil as you run alongside hundreds – or thousands – of others in, say, a gruelling marathon. That’s the spirit in which Matthew Rees helped David Wyeth to the finish line, and that’s why the simple act caught the world’s attention. ‘Running adds another facet to our identity, by enabling us to connect with likeminded others,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s such a positive thing to be part of.’ We couldn’t agree more.