Two women jog in the middle of the road in activewear.

Running in lockdown: why have so many women turned to jogging for their mental health?

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There are more people running than ever before, but why has the stress of lockdown turned us all into joggers? For Fighting Fit: Lockdown Lessons While WOFH (working out from home), we’re looking at the impact of daily runs on women’s stress levels.  

The first thing Megan Glynn, Stylist’s designer, did when lockdown 3.0 was announced was slip on her trainers and go for a run. Before March 2020, she’d done a Couch to 5k and would run from time to time, but since lockdown, she’d stepped up her training. “I realised that running was the only thing that clears my mind and makes me feel strong and resilient – it’s the perfect medicine,” she says.

7 million other people have joined Megan on their own personal running journey since lockdown began, according to new stats published by Macmillan Cancer Support. While for many this has been a practical decision, given that it’s one of the only forms of exercise we’ve had access to since gyms shut, it’s clear that for many running is about more than just physical health. 

Macmillan’s research found that, for one in seven people in the UK, running had helped them deal with stress since the first lockdown in March. It’s proving to be an even more popular tool for mental health than meditation or yoga, with with a third of people saying running helped them feel calmer and more positive, while one in five said it helped them to feel mentally stronger.

While we know about the long term benefits of regular movement for helping avoid depression, many people, such as Megan, have been using running as an instant crutch over the past year. It’s become the first thing they do when things get stressful, they start to feel their mind panicking, or we are landed with more bad news. 

A woman running through a tunnel in a red crop top and black leggings with her phone wrapped on her arm.
Running for mental health: Why have we all started running in lockdown?

Of course, this may not be new – seeing a woman angrily stomping through the city or speeding through a park, fuelled by stress or heartbreak, is a popular on-screen trope. Think Bride Wars, where gilet-laden Emma and beanie-donning Liv cathartically run on Central Park’s gravelled paths. Or the chaotic beach jogs in Big Little Lies during which Celeste, Jane and Madeline process trauma and stress. 

In films, women running is often an act of resistance, a physical sign of moving forward. It’s no surprise that in lockdown, when life is stagnant, we’ve taken up this torch ourselves.

It’s the case for Sarah Guild, who ended up feeling trapped when she ended up locked down in Yorkshire. “It was lovely to get out of London for a few days, but then I was ready to leave. Only, I couldn’t,” she says. 

As a PR manager who was used to the fast pace life of commercial work in the capital, “it felt like I was standing still,” she says. “I needed to find a way to feel that I was still moving, growing and achieving. That’s why I started running, and a year on, I’m still in Yorkshire but feeling incredibly optimistic about the future,” she says. 

Why is running so good for lockdown mental health?

“In my experience as a counsellor, people have talked about running being their saviour when the strains of attempting home schooling, working from home and not being able to get away from people they live with. There’s a sense that running has become more necessary when they’ve got those other very specific lockdown pressures at home,” says Dr Jill Owen, a sports psychologist.

Dr Owen says that the physical act of leaving our homes shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to our mental health. “Being outside has huge mental health benefits, but right now it’s even more helpful. Going to different places, on different routes, seeing different things and hearing different sounds gives you some perspective,” she says.

But it’s the running itself that can give us the biggest boost. The rhythmic element of the sport gives us a chance to “refocus our thoughts. Following a home workout video or counting your reps can provide a welcome distraction. But when you’re running, your body finds a natural rhythm which gives you time to process your thoughts, or to simply really focus on your music and podcast and switch off, depending on what you need,” she says.

My friend Emily tells me that she “realised my brain just completely switches off when I run, which is a godsend for someone with anxiety.” She uses it at the end of her day, to “get out of a funk. It ‘resets me’ if you will, even though that sounds cringey.” 

Sarah Guild runs in a black top in Yorkshire hills.
Running for mental health in lockdown: Sarah Guild took up running when she moved to Yorkshire

When is running not enough?

If you forced yourself out for a run at the beginning of lockdown due to a fear of being sedentary, your running may not have had the power it could have. “It’s really important to remember the way we talk to ourselves and how compassionate we are. Running can be an excellent to do for individual stress, but if it’s done in a punishing way by pushing yourself beyond safe and comfortable limits it can become more of a negative thing,” says Dr Owen.

For Megan, her love for running came when she gave up tracking. “I used to record my time and I felt like I was getting down and disappointed if I was slower one day, or if I didn’t see an improvement over a week. I spoke to my therapist at the time and she suggested just running because you want to, and it changed my entire outlook. I now just run for as long or short as I feel like,” she says. 

“Running in isolation won’t solve your mental health,” reminds Dr Owen. “But it’s a great starting point to process your emotions and deal with the implications of the past year.”

Read more from Fighting Fit: Lockdown Lessons While WOFH (working out from home)

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Images: This Girl Can / Getty / Sarah Guild 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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