It is that time of year again—that wonderful STRESSFUL time of year. The to-do lists are long, and the family tensions run high, and it may make you want to runaway—or just go for a run. But does running help with anxiety and stress? Or does it make it worse?
It depends. A bevy of research shows that regular exercise like running can decrease stress and anxiety. However, it depends on what kind of running and how stressed you are. If you feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends and have a 6-mile tempo to squeeze in before the sun rises, running is probably not going to have a positive effect on your stress levels like sleep would.
But, if you need time to step away from the chaos and clear your head for 45 minutes, then running could reduce your stress.
It is a familiar reframe of mine to the athletes I coach—don’t push doing the run if you are feeling stretched too thin. That may sound odd as a running coach, but I know firsthand the impacts of layering the stress of exercise on top of life stress can have.
Related: Can Running Make You Happy?
My experience with anxiety and stress, and running
2019 was a big year for me. It was the year I began running more competitively, running my first marathon postpartum, finishing 2nd overall, and deciding to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon. I also had my kids home with me, mostly full-time, and working a PR job from home full-time. Plus, I was trying to build The Mother Runners business on the side.
It was a lot. I would wake up obscenely early to get my workouts in before my husband left for work at 7 a.m. Then I would try to juggle clients and my children all day. My son was still waking up a lot at night and wanting me to be with him, so I was exhausted. Meanwhile, my mileage climbed from 50 miles per week to almost 100 miles per week.
I was completely stressed out and stretched thin. And you know what happened? I tore my hamstring and have been in an injury cycle since—yup, FOUR YEARS LATER.
It was clear my body was completely overworked, tired, and stressed to the max. Oh, and I also got sick. A lot.
My Revelation: Stress is Stress
I looked around and wondered how others could be training at a high level and not be breaking when I was falling apart.
And it wasn’t just me. My other mom friends were wondering the same thing. They were looking at others, wondering how they seemed to be able to run so well, falling into the comparison trap, and feeling like a failure. (Most of the others were single women in their 20s, by the way).
After 2019, I had an astonishing revelation. Stress is stress. Your body doesn’t know the difference. So, if you’re dealing with a lot of life stress or work stress, your body may not be able to handle as much running stress in that season. (The life of a mom caring for children is not the same as a life of a single person caring for only themselves. It’s just not).
For this article, I interviewed two experts: Todd Buckingham, 4-time World Triathlon Champ, 2:25 marathoner, and an exercise physiologist to explain to us how stress impacts the body. And I also spoke with Jessica Domi, certified fitness specialist and vice president of fitness group Fredricksburg Fitness Studio, about how to tell when running will help or HURT your stress level.
I will answer:
- How does stress affect the body? (Why stress is stress)
- Can running help with my stress and anxiety?
- How to tell if running will increase or decrease your stress?
- Signs you may be stressed out, and
- Steps you can take to lower your stress levels
- How to adapt your running to lower stress and anxiety
Reminder: I am not a doctor. I am a running coach. If you are concerned about your stress levels, go see one. This article is not meant to give you medical advice. It is meant to help you decide whether you should go for a run when stressed—not give you overall medical guidance!
How does stress affect the body?
When you experience feelings of stress, your brain signals to your adrenal glands to release stress hormones like cortisol which prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response. Your heart rate and breathing rate quicken, more glucose flows into the blood, your muscles tense, and your digestion slows.
According to Buckingham, it doesn’t matter if they are GOOD stressful situations like a new job or training for a marathon…or bad ones, like losing your job, or your kids having trouble at school, or your parents getting sick.
Stress is stress.
“Whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological stress, the body responds in much the same way. Three of the major stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine) are all released when we are stressed about work, life, family, finances, and everything in between.”
Related: Why You Need to Take a Running Break
Can running help with my stress and anxiety?
So, if running releases stress hormones, how is it that studies show running can help with stress and anxiety, along with other mental benefits?
Buckingham explains that running can help with stress and anxiety because while the body still responds to physical, emotional, and psychological stress the same way, it’s the OTHER hormones that are also released during running that aid in stress relief.
“The difference is that during exercise, there is a release of endorphins and dopamine (aka happy hormones) that are released that make us feel good and allow us to cope with the pain experienced during physical activity. Endorphins are the hormones that cause the ‘runner’s high’ that some are lucky enough to experience.”
Indeed, a new study presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) conference shows that running may be just as effective in reducing anxiety and depression as anti-depressant medication.
In the study, one group of participants ran for 45 minutes three days a week for 16 weeks. The other group took an anti-depressant. About 44 percent of both groups showed an improvement in depression and anxiety, “however the running group also showed improvements in (overall health such as) weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, and heart function, whereas the antidepressant group showed a tendency towards a slight deterioration in these metabolic markers,” the researchers noted.
Running your way to better mental health
Along with reducing anxiety and depression, running can decrease the risk of dementia, and improve self-esteem and cognitive function, shares Buckingham.
Running also produces new brain cells in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex that increase an individual’s brain volume, long-term memory, and attention.
“The more physical activity you perform, the bigger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex get. This is important because these two areas of the brain are the most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and the normal cognitive decline seen with aging,” he explains.
But sometimes we can have too much of a good thing in a season and need to take a step back. If you are running and not recovering, your elevated stress hormones could remain elevated—adding another layer to your already stressed-out body and potentially setting you up for chronic stress and health issues.
How can you tell if going for a run will increase or decrease your stress levels?
For some people, going for a run will be just what they need to reduce stress after a long day or start a big day off right. But for others, especially those training at a high level with vigorous exercise, running could exacerbate your cortisol levels.
As Domi explains, “Having body awareness and understanding when it’s ok to push our bodies and when we should back off is vital for not only the longevity of our running but our longevity in fitness in general. Running
and fitness are meant to enhance our lives, so knowing when to rest is a big component to staying healthy.”
I couldn’t agree more: I regularly tell my athletes that I want running to be a stress reducer, not a stress inducer. From experience, I know I can start to feel so boxed in my training and feel like I have to keep on the marathon training train no matter how bad I feel how little I slept that night, or how much I have to do that day. In these situations, trying to fit in my run workout only stressed me out more.
Related: Is it OK to Run When You’re Sick?
With that in mind, here are indications it is better to rest than run, according to Domi.
- If you lack the desire to go run, it’s not always good to force it. Think about why you feel unmotivated to run.
- If you feel particularly exhausted, under the weather, or sick—choose rest over the run.
- If you haven’t taken a rest day in at least a week, it is good to check in with yourself to see if a rest day would be beneficial.
- If trying to find the time to run is just too hard, let it go that day.
Here are some real-life scenarios of when rest may be better than running:
- Your household is sick and you haven’t slept well for one or more nights.
- Trying to fit in running into your schedule that week seems impossible and just one more thing to worry about.
- You are not sleeping well enough to recover from your workouts and are dreading running lately.
What are physical signs you’re stressed?
Your body tries hard to communicate that it is stressed and needs help. Research in the Journal of Hormones and Behavior shows that all stress triggers together have a cumulative effect on the functioning of your body.
“Stress can manifest in a multitude of ways including high blood pressure (i.e., hypertension), promotes the formation of plaque that can build up in the arteries, and causes changes in the brain that can lead to anxiety and depression,” explains Buckingham.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, some signs your body is stressed include:
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain and racing heart
- High blood pressure
- Stomach or digestive issues
- Difficulty sleeping or poor sleep quality
- Suppressed immune system
As a running coach, I have noticed the following signs my athletes are stressed and need to take a step back in their running.
- Poor eating habits
- Feeling fatigued throughout the day
- Higher heart rate on easy runs
- Difficulty sleeping or feeling exhausted despite sleeping
- Lack of focus
- Not looking forward to running
- Symptoms of depression such as loss of motivation
How can I reduce stress?
If you are stressed, below are some steps you can take to reduce your stress levels during this busy time.
5 Steps to Reduce Stress This Holiday Season
1. Focus on only the things you HAVE to do.
And relinquish, delegate, or take the shortcut in the others. Think about whether you really need to home-make that appetizer for the holiday party, for example. Tell your perfectionist self to take a hike. This goes for running too. If taking it off your plate that day causes you to exhale, do it.
2. Prioritize sleep and nutrition.
Do what you can to get the kids to bed early and you go to bed early. Don’t wake up early to run and then be exhausted the rest of the day. Take a day or three and sleep extra. Try to meal prep and have healthy snacks handy.
3. Consider taking an adrenal support.
An adrenal support supplement can help balance your hormones and stress levels. (If you are looking for quality multivitamins and immune support, check out Previnex. Previnex offers the highest quality and most effective supplements on the market. Hands down. Save 15 percent with code TMR15.)
4. Take 5 minutes.
Take 5-10 minutes in the morning, or wherever you can create space, to do something you WANT to do. This can be listening to the Jay Shetty Calm App series (the Daily Jay, which I love), reading a good book, stretching, journaling, taking an Epsom salt bath, square breathing, a short walk down and up the street. Something that will calm your nervous system and make you feel like you did something for you. I say 5-10 minutes because that is realistic, but if you can do more—do more.
5. Adapt your training.
High-intensity running can raise your stress levels because it spikes stress hormones. If you are in the middle of an intense training cycle, consider taking a break that week, or beyond. Shorten your long run. Take out your speed workout. taking a down week could save you from injury or illness (aka longer layoff). If you are chronically exhausted, move to a maintenance training phase. Exercise does reduce stress when in low to moderate intensities.
Below is what a maintenance program would look like. The good news is that it takes longer to lose fitness than you think. I have had athletes on maintenance plans for months and come back to training fit and healthy.
Running Maintenance Plan to Lower Stress
- Aim for 3-4 days of running.
- Runs should be 30-60 minutes long (with at least one 60-minute long).
- Keep runs easy.
- Do 4 strides after 1-2 of the runs if you did them before.
- If you can, include yoga, light cross-training including a brisk walk, mobility, and/or Pilates 1-2 days a week.
Obviously, a regular exercise program is key for mental health benefits as well as better overall health but sometimes you need to take a step back. Working with a running coach can help navigate those seasons.
If you need guidance with your training during stressful and non-stressful times, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
- Postpartum Training Plan
- After a Break Training Plan
- 5k Training Plans
- 10k Training Plans
- Half Marathon Training Plans
- Marathon Training Plans
- Strength Training Plan