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Running: “How running first thing in the morning makes me feel more mentally resilient”

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When it comes to both our mental and physical health, is it best to run in the morning or the afternoon? One writer explains why she likes to get it done first thing…

Sober types (such as myself) will often tell their weary, hungover friends (unsolicited, I know) that “giving up alcohol made me a morning person.” I’m oversimplifying it, but hear me out. I gave up drinking and after just a couple of months, I had more energy, I had my Saturday mornings again, and I felt more positive in general. 

I took this newfound energy and channeled it into fitness, turning a lifelong, half-hearted relationship with sport into a passion. I quit drinking in January 2016 and, by July, I was a competitive kick boxer, training in the evenings and travelling to international competitions on the odd weekend.

To do cardio training, I’d wake up at around 7am a few times a week to run a 5k before work. No breakfast, no coffee, not even a proper warm-up (tut tut!). I’d just get on my running clothes and go. I never thought I’d become a morning person, but something about chasing the sun on cold winter mornings gave me this new sense of mental resilience that has gotten me through the past year. 

BUILDING MENTAL RESILIENCE

My boxing coach told me that roadwork is good for building mental resilience. Whether you’re challenging yourself to run earlier or run for longer, you have to dig deep and find the will to get up and keep going. 

Mental resilience is best described as your ability to recover quickly from difficulties; to be able to emotionally regulate in times of stress and to not crumble under pressure. That doesn’t mean becoming a robot, but developing the tools to protect yourself against dangerous or difficult situations, and react more healthily to stress.

“Resilience helps us bounce back from setbacks,” says Dr Josephine Perry, sport psychologist and author of I Can: The Teenage Athlete’s Guide to Mental Fitness. “We all need that. Studies have found that athletes who demonstrate resilience to adversity are those more likely to reach their goals, secure long-term benefits in their performance and are able to think on their feet.”

Running in the morning quickly became a part of my fitness routine that I didn’t question. It only got tougher when we went into lockdown, and a big part of my identity vanished along with the entire world of amateur combat sports.

Without a boxing gym to go to in the evening, running first thing in the morning was no longer my only option. I could run after work instead, and it was actually a nice way to transition from the work day to relaxing in the evening – my equivalent of the lockdown glass of wine to signal the end of the working day.

All that being said, I’d still occasionally catch myself setting an alarm early to get a run in before work. I asked myself, why was I still waking up early to run if I didn’t have to?

Was I clinging on to my routine to feel some sort of control during the pandemic? Was I a glutton for punishment? Is running in the morning actually better for you, mentally and physically, or does it just feel like it is?

IS RUNNING IN THE MORNING BETTER FOR YOU?

According to Şirin Atçeken, psychologist and EMDR specialist at WeCure, running in the morning has several benefits that you wouldn’t get by doing it in the evening or afternoon. Running first thing in the morning sets you up for the day and gets your blood pumping, makes you feel accomplished, boosts your productivity and helps with concentration levels.

“It’s also a great opportunity to plan our day and process our thoughts and feelings,” she says. “It leaves us feeling less anxious and stressed, and we carry this mindset throughout our day.

She also tells me that people who run in the morning are more likely to reach other goals they set for the rest of that day. Given what I already know about myself, and other morning person types, this makes sense. The same could be said for any morning routine that starts with a healthy habit, whether it’s repeating a positive affirmation, journaling or meditation..

There are also physical benefits to morning runs too, like a kick-start to your metabolism. “Running before having breakfast means your body will store the food as energy, and not fat,” says Şirin, “so you’ll have more energy throughout the day, and you’ll avoid that mid-afternoon slump.”

IS RUNNING IN THE MORNING SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN TO BUILD MENTAL RESILIENCE?

When it comes to boosting your mental resilience, Dr Josephine Perry tells me that no studies have actually connected it to running. An early morning run might be a good outlet for stress, but no science proves that it’ll prepare you for it in the future.

I realised that this was just an assumption I’d made, based purely on my own experience and what is so often yelled in our faces from the “no pain, no gain” fitness industry. A gym-mad friend regularly sends me Instagram videos from retired Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner David Goggins, who swears by morning runs to “win the first battle of the day”. 

For some people, these early risers are inspirational. But let’s face it, for others, they’re just plain insufferable. If you’re not a morning person, hearing someone screaming “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” just feels demoralising and makes you want to bin the whole thing altogether.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that any exercise is beneficial for the body and mind, as Yasmin Shaheen-Zaffar, qualified BACP Therapist from Watoto Play, reminds me.

“I think we have to be kind to ourselves,” she says. “It’s all well and good going out for runs in the morning if that’s what lights a spark in you; but if you really hate it,  let’s face it – you aren’t going to keep it up. It’s going to become a chore that feels more like torture.

“You may think it may be a good way to ‘toughen you up’ and bring some self-discipline into your life, but I think life is too short to start your day with something that you don’t enjoy doing.”

If you’ve been reading this and thinking, “Oh god, do I have to become a morning runner now?” take it from Yasmin that you don’t. I still prefer running in the morning because of how it makes me feel; I’ve started my day with something challenging and, even if there’s no science to say it builds mental resilience, it certainly makes me feel ready for anything.

At the same time, if my alarm goes off and I feel shattered, I now hit the snooze and just do it later on. I have an all-or-nothing personality type, and I actually think it helps to cut myself some slack, to remind myself that a single day off doesn’t mean it’s a total write-off. Just because I hit the snooze, doesn’t mean I can’t handle whatever the day may throw at me.

In the grand scheme of things, it makes no difference. Morning runners are no better than afternoon runners, they just shout far louder about it. Larks are louder than owls, after all.

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IMAGE: Ally Sinyard 

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