How Running Helps Mental Health

How Running Helps Mental Health

We all know running is great for physical health. But did you know it can boost mental health, too? That’s partly because it helps us find a state of mind called “flow.”

What is flow state?

Flow is an optimal state where we feel and perform our best. Sometimes called “being in the zone,” it’s when we’re fully immersed in what we’re doing.

Studies show that people who get into flow state are generally happier, and experience more physical and mental well-being. Probably because, when we’re in flow, our typical thoughts and feelings (worry, stress, self-doubt) take a backseat. We’re totally in the moment.

Flow is a four-part cycle. It goes:

  1. Struggle
  2. Release
  3. Flow
  4. Recovery

Whenever we successfully find flow state, it follows this cycle. When we don’t find flow, it’s typically because we quit too early during the “struggle,” or we didn’t recover properly. As in, we didn’t get good sleep, we overtrained, or we didn’t fuel our bodies with the right foods.

Running can be a great way to get better acquainted with finding flow state. Especially when it comes to managing the “struggle” phase, using strategies to release from struggle, and just finding a “runners high.” Runner’s high is a classic flow experience.

How to find flow while running

Don’t expect to feel “flowy” right away during your run. When you first get going, your body and mind are still working to find a rhythm. That’s the “struggle” phase. Sometimes you get through the struggle and into flow quickly. And sometimes it takes a bit longer.

It’s an important and powerful first step to understand upfront that struggle differs from day to day and can take some time. That way, you can have the right mindset. Choose to engage with the struggle, knowing it won’t last forever. From there, some simple strategies can help you release from the “struggle” phase and find flow.

One great strategy is nasal breathing. Nasal breathing mixes nitric oxide (NO) into the air you breathe. NO is a vasodilator, meaning it helps widen your blood vessels, bringing more oxygen into your tissues. This process can help you feel better and more energized as you run, which helps release you from “struggle.”

Novelty is a powerful trigger for flow, too. So choose a new route with different kinds of terrain (a gravely road some days, a rocky trail or smooth concrete on others) on a regular basis.

Running can be a great way to manage stress and anxiety, and boost your mental health. By understanding the four-part flow cycle and using simple strategies to get through the struggle phase, you can make the most out of your runs and feel better, physically and mentally. So grab your sneakers, hit the pavement, and see how running can help you find flow, happiness, and peace of mind.