How to Support the Mental Health of Your Running Community

A woman stretches after a run.

Whether you’re tackling a new running goal or preparing to run a PR, your fellow runners are always happy to hear about your wins. But what about your struggles? Everyone faces them, but we're less likely to publicly share and talk about them. Not only when you twist an ankle, but the injuries that keep you off the trails for weeks. And more critically, the emotional strife with relationships, jobs and everyday life. I am talking about the internal struggles that we carry with us everywhere.

Yes, running is a positive self-care tool and can help you get out of bed each morning when navigating through a mental health challenge. However, it does not take away those struggles. At the end of a run, you're still back to the same life that you ran away from 30 minutes earlier.

The great thing about the running community is that we have the opportunity to uniquely help one another. Group runs help us open up to each other without the interruptions and distractions of everyday life. The shared miles form a bond that helps us listen to each other with care and without judgment.

Runners can travel for miles on foot, facing fatigue and striving for better endurance. But runners should also accept the mental challenges that exist within one another and create an open and safe place to talk about them, rather than avoid these conversations altogether. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re here to guide you in supporting your running community in more ways than passing out high fives at the finish line.

Pay Attention

A man and a woman run together.

Warning signs and symptoms for mental health struggles are often missed simply because we're not paying attention. Has a friend turned down invites for runs when you usually go together? Has a colleague who always has the next race booked not scheduled one? Was your trail mate's social media previously filled with beautiful selfies in the woods but is now empty? Are they needing more breaks during runs? Do they seem quieter or do they avoid conversations about their life?

Paying attention to signs and symptoms is easiest when you know someone well. Focus on anything different – behaviors that are out of the ordinary. If you're concerned about a runner you don’t know well – someone new in your running group or who recently moved to your town – then get to know them! Invite them to your weekly yoga class or a backyard bonfire.

Slow Down and Listen

Asking questions and listening are always available. My go-to inquiry for anyone who runs is, "how are you feeling?" This open-ended question, followed by your active listening ears, can take a quick pulse on a runner's life.

Carrying on conversations through training runs can help the miles fly by. So invite your partners to wander through their thoughts as you wander through yours. Remind them that you both have plenty of time, and it will be a much better way to get through the miles.

The most crucial step in this process is to actually listen. Don't think about how you want to respond or how this relates to your own life. Try to be as present as possible instead. A breathy "uhuh," or "that sounds tough," can be your verbal mid-run “I’m listening” cues, when eye contact and head nods are less available. This is not your time to say, "Everything will be okay.” This is your time to allow them to vent or share their thoughts, fears and problems without distraction.

Injuries and Illnesses are Tough

A man stands on the street looking down.

Injuries and illness are more isolating than we might realize. Whether chronic rheumatoid arthritis or a plantar fasciitis flare-up, when your running partner is navigating an injury and no longer showing up at your normal workouts together, you often won’t see them until they have recovered. Yet, this is when they need your friendship the most! When I suffered a concussion, I circled in anxiety and depression while alone in my house for months due to being on disability leave from work. I felt out of touch with my personal identity and my running community.

Can your injured friend walk or bike? Invite them to join you for some gentle cross-training. Need to do your weekly meal prep? Invite them over to cook and send them home with a few ready-made dishes. Going on a long run with your regular crew? Ask if they'd like to join the tailgating after.

Leave it up to them on what sounds fun, but try to avoid topics that could feel upsetting. Talking about running gear or races might be too triggering when we do not know how long an injury or illness will last. Speaking of which - don't make promises you cannot keep. Don't say, "you'll be back on your feet in no time," because you don't know that. But you can remind them of a time they were hurt or sick before and how eventually they healed. Remember that while they are in it, their downtime will feel like it has lasted forever, and it will never end. Be with them in that tough place.

Recommend Local and National Resources

Sometimes being a good friend is not enough. That is why we have professionals to help. Do your research on what is available via phone, text, or online support so you can share these resources with your friend. Check with your county Behavioral Health Services and see what free counseling, support groups, meditation groups, or substance use assistance are available.

As an athlete - and this includes anyone running 30 seconds to 30 miles at a time - many wellness professionals care for both our physical and mental health. Physical therapists provide hope and remind us that we're not broken but need to build strength. Acupuncturists can alleviate pain while also providing meditative time and space to rest. A massage therapist can loosen iliotibial (IT) bands while also allowing us to enjoy peaceful music and the scientifically proven benefits of physical touch.

Lastly, there are national and emergency phone numbers to save on your phone. Share them with a friend, or dial if you feel your friend, or yourself, is not safe:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: +1 800-273-8255

Crisis Text Helpline: Text "Help" to 741-741

National SAMHSA Helpline: Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Alternatively, dial local emergency services and explain that you're concerned about a mental health or substance use issue. Most emergency services have people trained for these crises.

A woman lays on a bed.

Take a Course

Mental Health First Aid USA was created with evidence-based research and utilizes activities and discussion. If you want to learn more about the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use issues, and practice having non judgemental conversations with people you care about, virtual and in person training is available.

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