Running through stress

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Maybe your ageing and much-loved dog isn’t doing well. Maybe your boss has been pressuring you to stay late. Maybe you were dumped. On your wedding day. With a text. And a sad-face emoticon. Whatever the reason, when you have a bad day or week, your instinct is to lace up and work it out on the road. But run when you’re too stressed and your interval-induced calm might elude you, say experts. In fact, you could be setting yourself up for injury.

For the most part, running is seen as a mental tonic. Research has shown that your routine 10km makes you better able to deal with anger, anxiety or grief – emotions associated with stress. But there’s a flip side: research also indicates that running during an especially rough time in your life can make you more susceptible to stress and even injury. Studies show that negative psychological states, low levels of life satisfaction and high levels of stress are linked to athletic injuries. ‘It’s paradoxical,’ says Jim Afremow, a mental-performance consultant, runner and the author of The Champion's Mind (Rodale). ‘Running is a favourite stress buster, but it’s your stress level that can put you at risk if it’s not managed properly.’ So what’s the anxious, overworked or dumped runner to do?

YOUR BODY ON STRESS

Back when our caveman ancestors needed to run for their lives from sabre-toothed cats, the body’s fight-or-flight response came in handy. Processes unnecessary for a quick getaway, such as digestion, would shut down, while functions needed for an escape, such as the circulatory system, would kick into high gear, helped by the stress hormone cortisol. A little bit of this chemical still does a runner good.

But too much – the amount you get when you’re stressed, for example – can become ‘maladaptive’, says Matthew Leroy Silvis, a sports-medicine doctor with Penn State Hershey Medical Group in the US.

Excess cortisol can have harmful effects on bone density and make you tense up. Run stiff and you’re more likely to strain a muscle, both because you’ll be less likely to find your footing should you stumble while you’re running and because tension can throw off your gait, compromising everything from your trunk rotation to your footstrike.

Serious stress felt over a long period can distract runners to the point that they doesn't notice or pay enough attention to what's happening to their body. ‘It’s a type of attentional narrowing; we stop paying attention to other cues in our body,’ says Gloria Petruzzelli, a clinical sports psychologist and triathlete who counsels runners at California State University, US. So a runner goes out despite having an achy foot instead of taking a rest day. ‘Overtraining syndrome can be a common problem among runners who experience stress and negative emotions,’ says Silvis. And if overtraining leaves you with an overuse injury, a negative state of mind can lengthen how long you stay sidelined, says David Lipetz, director of One Physical Therapy on Long Island, US. ‘If an athlete is under a great deal of stress, it can take until the origin of the stressor is resolved to fully recover.’

HOW TO COPE

The best strategy for coping with negative emotions is to focus on the present instead of what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow, says Afremow. Mindfulness, as this is called, was linked in a recent meta-analysis of clinical studies with lower levels of depressive symptoms.

Before you run, try visualising a scanner moving across your body, passing a comforting sensation through you as it goes from top to bottom, says Petruzzelli. This is your chance to make sure your jaw and shoulders are relaxed.

Then focus only on your run. ‘It’s about staying fully engaged with the sensory experience,’ says Michael Baime, runner and founding director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness in Philadelphia, US. Petruzzelli suggests fartlek runs: during this type of ‘speed play’, you’re more likely to be thinking about the tree you’re sprinting toward, not the fight you had with your partner. For the same reason, John Douillard, author of Body, Mind, and Sport (Crown), suggests running in an especially scenic place – a beautiful vista will keep your mind from drifting off to stressful thoughts. Running on a trail (where you have to pay attention to the terrain) or in a park (where there are people-watching opportunities) can also help keep you in the moment.

Douillard also recommends nasal breathing. ‘If you breathe through your nose, you are activating calming nerve receptors in the lower lungs,’ he says. ‘The goal is longer, slower, deeper breathing rather than quick and shallow brething.’ It’s also important to pay attention to the stress-busting standbys, such as getting enough sleep every night and maintaining a healthy diet.

Keep calm and run

Don't hit the road angry. Try these tips for managing stressful feelings

SADNESS

Find a running buddy and offer encouragement when you’re out for a run together. Research shows that offering support to others can improve your own mood.

SHAME/GRIEF

Visualise a metal locker. Put your worries and concerns inside it and lock it up. ‘You’re freeing yourself to deal with them after the run, when you can better process them,’ says Afremow.

INSECURITY

Take two minutes at the starting line to stand in Superman pose – feet wide, fists on hips, chest out, chin up. Research from Harvard University reports that striking such a pose can trick you into feeling powerful.

ANGER

Write the name of the person or the thing you're frustrated with on the bottom of your shoe, so with each step you're embodying your power over the source of the stress, says Jim Afremow.