6 Runner’s World readers on how running helped their mental health

Never underestimate the power of running. Over the years here at RW, we’ve shared many stories on how running has helped people recover from depression, cope with grief and beat addiction. Here, we speak to six runners who have used our sport to battle their mental health demons and emerge stronger than ever.

Lee Thomas, 37

'I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for probably the last 11 years, and even though I’ve been on different medications nothing seemed to help. I couldn't honestly say what brought it on but I know it runs in the family on my mother’s side. I hit rock bottom on New Year’s Eve 2015, after my partner and I split up. I felt I had no other option than to commit suicide.

It wasn't until late February 2016 that I first started running – I’d been told running was really good for people who struggled with mental health problems. Even though I found it hard at first and didn't like it, I haven't looked back since! Don't get me wrong, I still have bad days or even weeks, but nothing compared to how bad I used to get. I take medication still and I know I probably will have to for the rest of my life but if it helps me I’m all for it. I still run now and will continue to do so as it has become a passion of mine. This Sunday I will be running the Leeds Half Marathon and I’ve got plenty more races lined up.

My greatest achievement so far has been running the Great North Run last year for the mental health charity Mind. I raised well over £1000. Hopefully by the end of the year the Yorkshire Marathon will have taken its place!'

James Wilkins, 45

'I’ve struggled with self-harming, depression and suicidal thoughts since the breakdown of my first marriage when I was 22. I was stopped from seeing my two young children, and the pressure of going to court to get access brought on my mental health problems to the stage where I had a breakdown. My doctor wanted to section me but my new wife, Donna, stopped them and got me back on my feet.

My lowest point was a few years ago when I just gave up on life and took an overdose. Luckily, Donna found me on the lounge floor at 4am and called an ambulance - they said if she hadn't have found me I would have been dead by the morning. I woke up in hospital, and all around my bed were all my family and close friends. I never knew how many people cared about me. After I left hospital, Donna asked me ‘How would I have told our granddaughter that her granddad wasn’t here anymore?’ That hit me like a brick wall. How could I leave so many people that love me so much?

I discovered running through a friend and my boss as they keep fit and I thought maybe it would help. I entered a 10K run with hardly any training and completed it. It was the best feeling knowing I achieved something. I enjoy it and it has helped so much with my mental health. I don't take any pills, I sleep much better and I have something to aim for - I enter running events all the time and I'm hoping to run the London Marathon next year. I have a wall of medals now to look at and remember the bad times, but also the good times and the future! I now have 10 grandkids looking up to me. I must thank my wife for being by my side for 22 years - without her I wouldn't be here now. My life is better than it ever has been now I have found running. Never look back, always forward!'

Ciaran Judge, 38

'When I lost my dad to liver cancer when I was 16, my world went from being full of certainty to complete turmoil seemingly overnight. I started to feel real anxiety when I finished my final exams at university and got a job in the West End, which was very mundane and I had a lot of time to think. The more I thought the more anxious I felt, the more I tried to get away from the rising panic. It got so bad that getting on the Tube became a huge issue and by the time I got to work I would be a complete nervous wreck. I started to isolate myself from most areas of my life that I enjoyed and became more and more miserable. I was in my in twenties in a dead-end job, very overweight with no confidence at all.

One weekend, I’d gone to a friend’s house party, had a few drinks and got chatting to a girl, when all of a sudden panic washed over me and I had to get out of there. I went home and broke down in front of my mum. I felt so low and so ashamed, I was meant to be strong for my mum and here I was sobbing and sleeping on the floor of her bedroom for comfort.

I was very conscious of my weight and used to take a lot of stick about it from my colleagues and boss - so much so that my boss insisted on having everyone’s weight displayed behind him on a white board and I was the heaviest by some distance! I was so embarrassed and ashamed, I went home and set myself the target of running 1 mile a day for a week. I did that for a month, I began to walk more and more and slowly I realized the anxiety became more manageable.

I started to sleep better, and within 6 weeks I entered a 10k at Leeds Castle - the feeling I had at the end of that was priceless.

A friend of mine was doing the Great North Run that year (2004) - he and I began to train towards that goal. A group of about 15 of us completed the run and the feeling of camaraderie between us all was great. I absolutely loved the race - I met so many fantastic people, one of whom is now my wife.

After the Great North Run, we trained for London Marathon in 2005. I loved the training and I lost over 4 stone in weight. I gained confidence and self-belief. It sounds corny but I began living rather than existing.

I will never forget the feeling of turning right down the Mall and seeing the finish line. I had very bad cramp and was over taken by a Womble and the Grim Reaper but I couldn’t have cared less - aside from my wedding day and the birth of my two children, it was the best day of my life.

I still run at least 3 times a week and it helps me manage my anxiety. I wouldn’t say I am cured but I know I am in control of it rather than the other way around. Anxiety is so common and it amazes me how many people suffer with it to a greater or lesser extent. Running helps keep me on an even keel - I have a great deal to thank it for.'

Alix Carpenter, 28

'Even as a child I was “highly strung” and there are a lot of things I look back at and, with hindsight, recognise as anxiety. Now, it tends to be about not feeling in control of a situation, whether that’s a heavy workload, something being new or challenging, or a sudden change in plans. I suffer from panic attacks regularly, I often struggle to concentrate on just one task and I constantly catastrophise – everything is the absolute worst-case scenario.

When I was living with a boyfriend in my early 20s, I was having severe daily panic attacks. I remember lying on the floor of our flat crying and hyperventilating and I was so certain that nothing could ever be okay again. I felt so lost and powerless, I didn’t know what was making me feel that was and I couldn’t explain it to anyone.

I wasn’t at all sporty at school and didn’t start running until I was 25. A friend from university was running a lot and was very open about how it was helping her mental health. I was working long hours in London and going through a break-up, and decided I was at a point where I’d try anything. I find that my mind completely switches off when I run and it gives me some much-needed quiet from all the thoughts racing through my head.

Some of the most supportive people in my life now I have met through running. I ran the Bath Half Marathon for Mind, and as part of my fundraising effort started blogging about mental health and running. It was the most open I had ever been about my anxiety and it prompted so many conversations with friends who had similar experience but hadn’t wanted to share them.

Managing my resilience is a fairly careful balancing act. I have to eat well, exercise, sleep enough and not have too much caffeine, sugar or alcohol. I don’t need to be perfect but if I let too many of these slip, I definitely find my anxiety becomes a greater problem.

I run less regularly at the moment because of a hip problem. It makes me anxious to know it’s not my choice not to run, and I think all runners experience that. The moment you want to run the most is the moment you realise you can’t! If I can’t run, it means I know I can’t afford to let any other factors slip because running isn’t there to give me the balance. I have less leeway with everything else. Usually I know that if I’ve got a bit of a hangover, that I can outrun the anxiety that it might contribute. When I’m injured, I know I have to be that bit more careful about everything else because their importance is heightened.'

Hannah Tomlinson, 31

'I won't go into all the gory details but I have borderline personality disorder and had a long episode of severe manic depression. It's actually something I am fighting every day. I hit rock bottom about 18 months ago, I was incredibly low and had a bit of a breakdown. I was off work for around 3 months, finding it almost impossible to function.

I had been running on and off for a few years but really discovered the help it gave me mentally during this period. On days when I had lost all hope and honestly didn't want to be here anymore, it was a lifeline. I couldn't do much and had lost all motivation and enjoyment of things, but if I could at least get out of the house and run around the park I felt like I had at least achieved something that day. It would stop me from feeling like a complete failure.

Along with medication and therapy, running is perhaps the most important tool I use to help maintain some sort of good mental health. I still have really bad spells but I always force myself to get out and run. I focus on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other and trying to get a rhythm going that helps me control the thoughts that often overwhelm me.

I actually ran the London Marathon this year for Samaritans - that's how much running has taken over my life!'

Nathan Bullock, 22

'I had depression for years. I would struggle for days to have motivation to do anything. It was all brought on when I became a single parent - the day-to-day stress of parenting really set me back. I hit rock bottom when I moved into my own house. I felt alone everyday and didn’t know how to cope.

I decided to start running because I had signed up to do the Great North Run. At first, I struggled to find motivation to get out and run, but one day I got up, dropped my son off, put my headphones in and just ran. I felt distanced from all my troubles. It made me feel lighter and more motivated. My stress levels dropped and I felt happier from running.

I'm managing my mental health much better now and I'm back in training to do the Great North Run again. I’ve noticed if I set myself goals I feel more motivated - it keeps my depression at a low as I can focus on the goals I have set myself. It’s also made me more active with my 3-year-old son, who now loves having daddy run round with him.'