To me, running is a stress reliever…most of the time. I love being outside, running past the old homes in our neighborhood. I love the feeling I get in my legs when I’m running, and weirdly the feeling of mild soreness I in them the next day. I don’t love the feeling of my chest burning or being really out of breath, which is why I usually run at a slow pace or run/walk. Running gives me a chance to listen to my favorite podcasts - currently I’m catching up on old episodes of Stuff You Missed in History Class and My Favorite Murder - but occasionally I just feel like jamming to Bodak Yellow on repeat.
While running is a stress reliever for me now, it didn’t used to be. When I was in high school, I was on a really competitive cross country team and was self conscious about being the slowest. Running wasn’t very fun, but I did it because I felt like I had to do a sport. Once I got past the self-imposed expectations a few years ago, I started to love running, and even did a few half-marathons. Here’s an article I wrote recapping my most recent half, and tips for intuitive movement while training. That all said, I know there’s a lot of other people who don’t enjoy running because they hate it, feel uncomfortable while running, or have an injury that makes it painful. Regardless, the idea that running is supposed to be a stress reliever is pretty universally accepted.
But no matter how you personally feel about it, physically, running is a stressor. Yup, you read that right. Whatever you think, or what your running friends say about it’s zen-like effect, physically, running is an acute stressor.
While running does release endorphins (hence the feel good effect), it also releases cortisol, a stress hormone, as does any other moderate/high intensity exercise. In fact, moderate exercise increases cortisol levels by 40%, and high intensity exercise increases cortisol by 83%. Before you get too concerned, this rise in cortisol isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides being a stress hormone, cortisol also helps your body recover from exercise by repairing tissues. Placing your body under acute stress and letting it recover is part of what makes running good for you - that is, when the conditions are right.
So what are the right conditions? The right conditions are having enough rest and nutrition to support the acute stress from running, and allow your body to heal. In science terms, it means having a low allostatic load. Allostatic load is essentially the cumulative wear and tear on your body from emotional stress, physical stress, poor nutrition and inadequate sleep. If cortisol levels are already high from chronic stress on the body, you’re not going to get the acute rise and drop in cortisol levels that’s so beneficial.
Everyone has a unique threshold of how much stress their body can tolerate. That’s why some people can do intense marathon training on very little sleep, and other people experience significant physical symptoms from a period of emotional stress, regardless of nutrition/movement. And although I haven’t seen any research on it, I suspect different people are more sensitive to specific stressors.
As you consider where running (or any other kind of movement) plays a role in your life, it’s helpful to keep in mind exercise recommendations for general health - 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. If you’re doing more than this, I’d encourage you to dig in and question your motives. It’s not to say that doing more than that is bad or harmful per say, it’s just that it may be putting your body under stress, so you might want to make sure your motives are clear and worth it.
We’ve internalized this idea that more exercise is always better, but sometimes less is more. I don’t have the study on me (so please don’t quote me on this) but I once listened to a sports medicine researcher who said that the life expectancy for marathon runners was about the same as for someone who is sedentary. Again, that’s not to say that high milage running is always bad for you. Plus, we don’t always have to make the decision that’s associated with the longest life expectancy. People who engage in extreme sports probably have a lower life expectancy, but they do what they do because they love it. That said, if you’re doing lots of running for health, it might be helpful to step back and evaluate if running at your current intensity is actually healthy for you.
If you’re someone who loves running, cool, don’t stop! Well, unless you’ve been told by a provider to stop or have an injury, in which case - please stop! But otherwise, if running is to be part of your life, and a part of your life that you value, then you probably want it to stay that way. So support your running by dealing with stress, fueling your body adequately, and getting enough sleep. And know that if you’re going through a period where you’re feeling stretched thin, it’s OK to ease up on running - that might actually be the healthiest thing for you.
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