Many runners would agree that running can be a form of therapy. Some of our most open and honest conversations happen when we run – something Run Talk Run club founder Jess has been facilitating on a large scale. We chat to Jess about why jogging is so good for helping people to open up, her own mental health journey and her latest 12-hour ultra-marathon, which she ran to raise money for the Samaritans.
Warning: this article contains references to suicide
Talking about mental health can be difficult at the best of times. The prospect of sitting down for a serious conversation about depression or anxious thoughts is hardly a pleasant one. It’s far easier to chat openly when you’re distracted – on a walk or, perhaps, while running.
Lots of veteran runners know how good jogging can be for facilitating tricky conversations but we don’t often think that the magic can happen over a short distance – like 5km. If you’re a member of Run Talk Run – the running club dedicated to talking about mental health – however, you’ll know that 30 minutes is all it takes to open up.
Jessica Robson founded Run Talk Run back in 2017, to help her deal with her own poor mental health following a breakup and house move. “I found myself in a dark place with depression again,” she tells Stylist. “An unshakeable sadness. Despite taking my anti-depressants and attending weekly therapy sessions, I just wasn’t improving. I struggled to open up fully in therapy.” During the runs that she did with her mum, however, “I was able to talk a lot more freely about the intensity of my emotions and thoughts.”
That process of moving and talking was something that Robson knew could benefit others. “I wanted to open up that same space to other people – an alternative environment to therapy to talk about the hard stuff.”
The result was Run Talk Run, a mental health peer-support community that meets for a weekly 5km gentle jog. Its aim is to facilitate a safe space to talk about the “hard and heavy topics” that might otherwise go un-tackled. It’s unique both in the conversation topics and the fact that “we don’t care at all about pace or ‘good vibes only’,” Robson explains. This running club is a place where it’s “OK to say you’re not OK.”
Such is the need for those open and honest conversations, that Run Talk Run has grown “organically and beautifully” to now include 165 groups worldwide, from Tooting to Trinidad.
Providing a space to “give back” to other people has “worked wonders” for Robson’s self-esteem, and surrounding herself with “a loving and supportive community was amazing for helping me escape the social anxiety that had clung to me throughout my life.” Runners can turn up to a session knowing that the people there want to talk and hear about topics that might be taboo in, say, a pub setting – and it’s that which gives runners the reassurance and confidence to open up.
Of course, the actual running plays a massive role. The link between mental health and running is well-established. One study of 14,000 people, conducted mid-pandemic, found that 82% of runners say running helps to clear their minds, while 78% feel “more sane and in control” because of running. Another piece of research found that aerobic exercise like running can be as effective as some anti-depressants and makes the recommendation that such activities should be prescribed for the treatment of depression and anxiety alongside medical interventions.
“Running itself makes things a lot less intimidating – removing eye contact is just one example of how it does this,” says Robson. “Running also has a beautiful way of removing the social barriers that ordinarily exist, which gives way for meaningful connection and honest discussion. It is hard to hold up false pretenses when you are running!”
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She makes a valid point; as runners, we’re all equal. You don’t need to wear fancy clothes or trainers, your job and education are irrelevant. Body size, race, gender or sexual orientation are all second to the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
Perhaps it’s that sense of equality and anonymity that fuelled the mass take-up of running over successive lockdowns. No matter where you lived or what your situation was, you could get out and jog. “Covid-19 has definitely opened up people’s eyes to the healing benefits of running,” Robson believes.
“Those who might otherwise have never tried it, have come to see how running can be a constant in their lives when everything else has felt uncertain.” Indeed, by July 2020, downloads of the Couch to 5km app had increased by 92% compared to 2019, while research published back in February by Macmillan Cancer Support estimated 7 million people across the UK have turned to jogging during the coronavirus crisis to boost their mental health.
How then do the conversations happen on a Run Talk Run outing? It’s all very well to say that running makes them easier but for the total novice, it’s a tall order to expect someone to turn up ready to talk.
Each run is lead by a leader who gently “encourages” – but never forces – the conversation, Robson explains, “Talking about mental health is so hard and it can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. As leaders, we try to speak as candidly as possible about our own mental health, which can hopefully encourage others to feel comfortable enough to do the same.
“If you don’t (feel able to open up), that’s also OK… Run Talk Run can be a great way to support other people with their mental health struggles too.”
While the rest of us may have spent the past few weeks making the most of society’s reopening, Robson has been concentrating on her own mammoth challenge – a 12-hour, non-stop run around East London.
In February this year, her best friend’s dad died by suicide – a tragedy that left her feeling “so helpless”. “I’m definitely someone who looks for the ‘action’ to take, and fundraising for the Samaritans while simultaneously raising awareness of suicide was the only thing I knew I could do to make a difference to other people who might be in the same situation.”
So, she decided to run from 7pm to 7am as a way of “highlighting the darkness and the times in the night which can often feel so much harder for those who are struggling.”
As if running for 12 hours wasn’t enough, Robson contracted a UTI the day before the and “started the run feeling nauseous and drained from antibiotics.” Despite that, the London running community helped keep her going – turning the ultramarathon into something of a party. If you heard people singing Shakira in the early hours of the morning somewhere near Mile End, Robson was probably to blame.
That sort of challenge is a huge physical and mental undertaking. The energy from the London running community kept Robson going “and at about 4.30am, we had the most beautiful sunrise which felt rather symbolic, and helped us to remember Tony – the person we were running in memory of.”
The physical side of things was far harder, however. “My legs held up but nothing could have prepared me for how nauseous I would feel. I struggled to eat on the run, which isn’t good when you’re running for 12 hours straight.”
For Robson, that experience taught her that “you can’t change the past and you can’t bring back people you’ve lost.” What you can do, however, is “look ahead and be a force for good for those who might be struggling in the days, weeks or months to come.”
You can donate to Jess Robson’s Twelve for Tony JustGiving page, all proceeds from which will be donated to the Samaritans.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal feelings, talk to the Samaritans for free on 116 123. Their phone lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.
Ready to take your running up to the next level? Join the Strong Women Training Club’s Strength Training for Runners four-week programme today.
Images: Run Talk Run/Jessica Robson
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.