Running is my therapy

Running is my therapy

With World Mental Health Day on October 10 just a few weeks away, Tweak talks to world-record-breaking athlete Eva Clarke to find out how the world’s favourite form of therapy helped her own mental wellbeing.

The link between good mental and physical health is much closer than most of us give due credit to. While the ‘mental game’ that is part of elite-level athletics goes hand in hand with world-class training, with serious consideration paid to conditioning the brain as much as the body, most of us don’t really think like that when it comes to factoring in our weekly gym visits, runs or home workouts.

The news that a good sweat session brings an endorphin high is not news to most people and it’s one of the reasons that workouts can begin to feel addictive – in a good way! But mental health benefits are part of any type of physical activity, from CrossFit to HIIT classes, yoga or swimming, and these are increasingly being understood to be as potentially transformative as anti-depressants.

And when it comes to physical exercise, running is the most accessible. There are no membership fees, no complicated equipment, and all you really need is a pair of sneakers and some outdoor space to be on your way.

Since global lockdowns due to Coronavirus ended, there has been a surge in outdoor running, as people around the world turn to it to help deal with increased levels of anxiety, stress, uncertainty and sadness about the pandemic and its effect on their lives.

“I run to decompress the stress of daily life, to have time where I am completely with myself. My energy is for me alone and when I run I am not distracted by family, friends, colleagues, or anything else,” says Eva Clarke. 

The mother of three from Australia, who lives in Abu Dhabi, is intimately familiar with just how transformative movement as therapy can be. A challenging childhood with a mother who suffered from schizophrenia meant that her upbringing was chaotic, fearful and unpredictable, with regular bouts in foster care. She turned to exercise as a form of self-medication, recognising early on that the more she moved, ran, lifted and pushed her physical limits, the stronger her mind felt and the more in control of her emotions she became. 

“Running is my medicine and it is the most undervalued free medicine in the world,” she says with conviction. “If you are the stage where you can’t run yet, then start by walking. Some people might feel afraid of being seen to run, but if you can find the confidence to get out there and run, you will discover that the ‘runner’s high’ is very real. It will give you confidence, a better mood and improve your focus for the rest of the day. Especially now, with Coronavirus, we all need to find an outlet for ourselves, whether that’s art, walking, or running. We each deserve something that makes us feel happy and enhances our emotional wellbeing." 

Eva’s own journey of fitness was ignited when she went for an impromptu run as an eight-year-old child to escape home. Running, she freely admits, kept her on the “straight and narrow” during precarious teenage years. A career in the military followed, and she became a trainer in the army and air-force even while becoming a mother for the first time.

It was in the UAE that her ambitions for record-breaking feats began, and mindful of her own difficult childhood, she set goals to break world records while raising money for children’s charities.

“When I attempted the world record for the most push-ups in 24 hours, I was thinking about giving back, and I raised money charity for The Maria Kristina Foundation to send 10 kids to school. Challenges like 24-hour burpees for a cancer organisation followed. I told myself that the pain of losing a child, or living in a cycle of poverty can last a lifetime, and that motivated me to keep going.”

Eva’s way of giving back resulted in a staggering 16 world records and one of the ways she hopes she inspired others is to push themselves to try a challenge outside their comfort zone.

“We are all allowed to be upset and to feel down, but then life is about getting up and being grateful for the blessings we have. I hope that my sharing my story about my tough early start in life, and how exercise and running helped me, I can inspire others to understand how running and movement are so important in mental health.” 

With the therapeutic effects of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing the mind to relax, uncoil and to wander, Eva’s only other advice is to wear comfortable kit. “I have done ultramarathons, 24-hour record attempts and long races, and good shoes and kit are important, as the last thing you want is to feel blisters, rubbing and painful chafing. You don’t need that added to a marathon, that’s for sure, and I’ve never had a single mark from wearing Tweak. It feels a bit like you are wearing nothing at all.”

Four reasons why running is good for mental health

Running gives you confidence

Setting yourself a challenge –whether it is to run that first kilometre or to finish your first half-marathon, unlocks your self-belief. As your running improves and you accomplish goals you never thought possible, this feeds into your attitude in other areas of your life. “We tell ourselves that we could never run a certain distance, but we don’t know what we are capable of until we try. We become what we repeatedly do, and if you think you can’t, then you won’t! Start with one rep, start with one minute… just start,” says Eva. “Don’t be scared to start and then you will realise how much is within your grasp. It’s not magic, but it might feel that way!”

Running is a mood-booster

Although the ‘runner’s high’ and endorphin rush post-run is frequently referenced, the science of why we feel so boosted after a run is pretty serious stuff. Scientists have found solid evidence of increased feel-good chemicals in the brain after studying runners and athletes. It’s thought that this response is an evolutionary leftover from when human beings evolved to move more over longer distances. While we may not be out chasing prey any more, our bodies still respond positively to movement over distance.

A little holiday for your mind

Taking time out to tune out from the everyday noise in your life –work stress, demanding children, unhappy relationships and personal trauma – is key to pressing a mental ‘reset’ button and avoiding feelings such as burnout or being overwhelmed by life’s daily admin. “I run to unclog my mind from the day. I am a working mum and a wife, but it doesn’t matter who you are, we all feel frustrated and stressed and running gives you time to get away from that and decompress,” says Eva.

Running makes you feel younger

“I am 41 now and still feel that I am at the start of my life. I feel really good,” says Eva. “ There is no middle age any more, and it is never too late too start.”

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