Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Running up that hill: running, pop-songs and mental health

I wanted to share how running helps my mental health. I’ll admit this is a pretty self-indulgent piece, but since having a blog in the first place is self-indulgent, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. That said, you should definitely read on, even if only to test your knowledge of pop music.

The overstated health benefits of running!
I am focusing on the mental benefits as I am not entirely sure of the long term physical benefits of running: I am currently laid up with a torn calf muscle, my ankles and knees are pretty ruined, my tendons have shrunk so far that I can barely touch my shins let alone my toes, I’m pretty sure I’ve broken a bone in my foot more than once and the less said about my toenails the better.

However, running does, for me, have clear mental health benefits:

1.       Lose yourself. I have a pet theory that my sub-conscience does most of my problem solving; which is a convenient excuse when I am caught staring into space. But in order to problem solve, my sub-conscience needs some space in my head. Mindfulness (the corporately acceptable face of meditation) comes to the same thing – clearing the thoughts from your head. For me, running, particularly to music, clears everything else away. Occasionally, I take this to extremes by running in the woods at night with a head torch and music cranked to 11, which earns a few odd looks, but is amazing. Some people claim to power their way through work problems whilst they run, but I am too busy concentrating on remembering to breathe and the effort of putting one foot in front of the other to do this.
2.       Working 9-5. We are all productive at different times of the day. I get my best thinking done in two blocks 9-12 and 4-7: there is often dead time between these blocks and problems stay unsolved regardless of the effort spent forcing them. It is far better for me to do something else in the intervening time. This is where having a set of running stuff at work really helps, when I hit a low ebb I can head out the door for 30 minutes and come back refreshed (mentally if not physically).
3.       A small victory. Academia is beset by failure: be it experiments, grant or papers. Sometimes I need little wins. Running can provide wins through running fitter, further or faster. Apps have revolutionised incremental gains in running and whilst there are few wins smaller than knowing you were the 17th fastest person across Waterloo bridge on a wet Wednesday in November, it beats the old method of ‘winning’ against random strangers running in the park who don’t even know they are in a race (though admittedly I do this too).
4.       Thank you. One of the major stressors at work is in comparing myself to others, losing sight of what I have achieved in the comparison. Running provides moments of wonder and gratitude: turning the corner to see the sun rise over the sea, or the light dancing on a wheat field or even just the smell of rain on the London pavements. Likewise, going on the same route year round gives a great sense of the changing of the season. Admittedly the endless slate grey of the British Autumn/Winter/ Spring can get a bit monotonous but eventually the joyous day comes when the greenery bursts into life. Restoring the perspective that I often lose.

All of these benefits are variants on a theme: they take me out of myself, focusing my thoughts on simple things. I am at my least healthy when I get caught in a loop: be it funding, staffing or logistics. Interrupting this loop with something else can be enough to shut it off or get me to focus on the solution not the problem.

Of course there are other ways I can achieve the same state. They are mostly outside: walking, camping, gardening, playing football or listening to live music. But where running has the edge is the ease and convenience. You don’t need anyone else; you only need a pair of trainers. It is also incredibly flexible, it can be squeezed in as part of the commute - though my fellow commuters on the 6:24 from Waterloo may be less grateful as I sweat my way home. It is also highly portable, I make every effort to take my running things when I travel with work and this has led to some of my favourite runs – along the seafront in Reykjavik as the sun sets over the sea, in the rain in Brussels, on a beach in California as dawn breaks.
Sunset over Iceland
Daybreak in California

As I said from the outset, this was largely a self-indulgent piece, I enjoy running, it helps me and wanted to share that feeling. Of course the reality falls short of the picture I paint here. There are often times when I don’t want to leave the house, when all my muscles ache and there was even a time when I got overtaken by someone dressed as a rhino. And while it’s not for everyone, I think the underpinning idea – doing something that takes you out of yourself is enormously beneficial. And if you found this a bit preachy, remember it could be worse – I could be a cyclist.

PS – did you spot them:
Runing up that hill: Kate Bush
Lose Yourself: Eminem
Working 9-5: Dolly Parton
Thank you: Dido
And a bonus point for spotting the Spinal Tap reference.

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