Running For Head Space and Mental Health - by Jess Munday
Why do I run? This is a question I have asked myself on numerous occasions throughout my rather tumultuous relationship with running. If you had asked me this back in 2012, I would have told you it was purely to burn calories, or as a punishment for that cheeky chinese that I just didn’t have the willpower to say no to. If someone had told me that running was more than just a weightloss tool I would have laughed in their face. Fast forward to 2021, and that is the last thing I would mention. Community, headspace, friendship, fun….these are all words I would now use, but it has taken me such a long time to get here.
I was always the kid that faked illness to get out of PE, I never got picked, I always came last. Bullied for being overweight, even if I found a sport I liked, there was always a barrier - normally in the shape of mean teenage girls. I know this is where my struggles with body image and mental health began; where I began to descend the slippery slope into disordered eating and an unhealthy obsession with exercise. I never enjoyed running but I did it obsessively to get rid of the guilt after eating; to get rid of the fat that still clung to my body despite starving it of vital nutrients. It wasn’t until 2017, after 10 years of punishing my body, I was diagnosed with atypical bulimia nervosa and began treatment. In October 2020 my dietician and occupational therapist suggested I was well enough to start trying to find "joyful movement", a concept that completely baffled me. How could movement ever be joyful with a body like mine? Would I ever be able to exercise without letting it consume me? And despite them telling me how beneficial it would be to my mental health, I just couldn't see the point in exercising for something other than weight loss.
Despite my reservations, I gave it a go. Now I was well enough to fuel my body properly, I found that I really enjoyed running. I loved the way it made me feel; euphoric, strong, unstoppable. But how I looked was one of the biggest barriers to starting running again. I would go out in the dark, dressed in black (not safe - do not do this!!!) purely because I wanted to blend in and not be seen. What if someone sees my belly wobble? What if someone stares at my thighs? What if someone laughs at me? That constant fear of judgement was always there, and it saddens me to think that so many women feel their appearance is a barrier to running. Just like the little voice that used to be in my head, I often hear women say “I don’t look like a runner”. But what does a runner even look like? If you run, you are a runner. We are all runners, irrespective of how we look or how fast or far we run.
I had followed This Mum Runs for some time, and was following their Run30 programme to ease me back into running, so when they put out a call for new communities, I knew this was something I had to do. We have so many running clubs in the area, but I had always been intimidated by their pace and focus, and I knew that trying to fit in would only lead me back into that downward spiral. I knew this was my chance to help reduce the barriers so many women face when starting running...and so TMR Southampton was born!
For a few months I was able to support fabulous women from behind a screen, but as our group run launch date came around, my anxiety went through the roof. I kept worrying that I wasn’t fast enough to lead a run, that women would show up and think “how can she lead a run when she is overweight?” or worst of all that no one would show up at all. But I was so wrong. That first run was life changing, and I have met the most amazing women week after week. And I have met friends I will have for life. Our group has gone from strength to strength and now our Weds eve runs are the highlight of the week. It is so great seeing women of all shapes and sizes, of all ages, with different running abilities coming together. And I know, no matter how down I am feeling, no matter where my head is at, 30 minutes with these ladies is enough to turn my week around. And each week this session affirms why I run and why it is so important to see running as a holistic tool and not just as a way to lose a few pounds.
So why do I run? I run for me. When things are tough, when my anxiety becomes unbearable, when those little voices saying “you are not good enough” come creeping back, I make myself get out and run. Running is my mental reset. A short run draws a line under any negative thoughts I may have and allows me to move forward with a positive mindset. I now don’t see running as a punishment for not having the “perfect” body; I now use it to celebrate what my body can do. This year I have completed two half marathons and a marathon, and I think that makes my body pretty epic! Yes running is good for my physical health, but it is so much more than that. It is also about headspace, time for reflection, strengthening my heart and muscles and enjoying spending time in nature.
In the age of social media, it is so easy to make comparisons to others, leaving yourself feeling inferior. And this is why I love TMR; the lack of pressure and judgement, and the incredible support has meant that I have been able to find a love of running that I never had before. I am so grateful that I have been given the chance to help other women become a part of such an amazing community.
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces”.
This quote from Ann Voskamp really sums all of this up for me. After years of drowning, running helps me keep my head above water - and the TMR community has become my safe space to share my story and help reduce the stigma around mental illness. If talking about how running has repaired my negative body image and boosted my mental health persuades one woman to lace up her trainers and run, then everything I have been through is worth it.