How Running Saved My Mental Health

Suffering in Silence

Many of us silently suffer with ailing mental health. “I had no idea you had it” people say when I tell them. But I’m always met with compassion and kindness because more of us struggle than we think. Which is why I wanted to share my story.  My belief is, the more awareness we generate, the more willing people will be to seek help and find shared coping strategies.

So, here’s my story.

The world was closing in and bed was my safe place.

The Descent of Darkness

A dysfunctional work environment was seeping into my bones, my body, my psyche. I was sinking fast. Wracked with anxiety. Thoughts racing. Then the darkness came, cloaking me with its sad hopelessness.  The colour drained out of my world and I hit the deck. Unable to move from my bed, every sound and interaction bleating like a siren through my senses. The world was closing in and bed was my safe place.

But I was a mum and a wife, I couldn’t just curl up and die.  Somehow, I had to keep going. By day I would curl up, but as soon as my daughter got home from school, I would greet her with smiles and love. For then, it had to be about her and, rightly or wrongly, I needed to wear a mask of okayness. How could I get through this without medication? There must be an alternative.  My whole life was about alternatives and I didn’t want that to change now.

Beach Run - Sarah HerfetSo, one day, I rolled out of bed, got dressed and just went for a run. My head was saying no. I felt weak.  But somehow, I pushed those thoughts and feelings away. If I couldn’t change how I thought or felt, I had to change my behaviour. Put one foot in front of the other. The pit-pat, pit-pat of my feet on the earth.  Heart pounding, rhythmic breaths of fresh air and the heat of my skin stirred me from my darkness.

Running as therapy

Just getting out of my head and into my body was so grounding. That ten or so minutes was the first step of my breakthrough. The breakthrough into recovery. My therapy. So every day, I would get up and go for a run and, immediately after each run, I would feel a brief glimmer of joy. This was my prescription. My daily anti-depressant dose. Just for a while, it boosted my mood but there’s even more that running brought to me.

The Running Community and Mental Health

Depression and anxiety are a lonely business.  I felt isolated and disconnected on the one hand, yet reluctant to connect with others on the other. This tennis match of self-doubt was hard to shake.  If it wasn’t for the kindness of one of my running buddies at the beginning of this illness, I don’t know where I’d be.

Knowing how I was feeling one morning, my running friend reached out and asked me to go for a ‘dog jog’ with her. Reluctantly, I agreed. As we jogged round our local forest – our hounds lolloping around us – we started to chat. I found out that she too suffered from depression, so she completely knew how I was feeling.

Connection with my running community boosted me even more!

This was such a relief to me and, as we pulled into the coffee shop following our run, I was struck at how good I felt.  For the first time in ages, I felt more connected. The run had brought us together and, as we continued our chat, she convinced me to take the next steps in my recovery and go to our local parkrun that weekend.Sarah Herfet - parkrun

I’d avoided parkrun for a few weeks, unable to face people.  But when I arrived on that blustery, autumn morning, greeted with smiles and hugs, I realised that this kind community was just what I needed.  Although difficult to imagine when I was in the depths of depression, connection with others gave me the sense of perspective I needed.

Parkrun is a family I’m proud to be a part of.

Running on my own boosted my mental and physical well-being enormously. Running within a supportive community took it to the next level and parkrun gave me both. Connection was what was missing for me.  I’d lost my way. parkrun gave me that lifeline.  A way for me to connect with others and run at the same time. Parkrun is a very caring community, it was built on community. Seeing the smiles and elation of runners old and young was contagious.  It took me out of myself.

During my illness, parkrun became my focus.  If I wasn’t running, I volunteered and we always went for coffee afterwards. This still continues to this day. parkrun is a family I’m proud to be a part of.

Through running, I found my tribe.
Sarah Herfet - Running Club Award

Running helped me so much and I just wanted to spread the word and help others feel like I felt. So, I qualified as England Athletics Run Leader and now host beginners’ running groups. The mental and physical transformations I see, week on week, in people who’ve taken up running is truly amazing. On my own journey last year, I completed my first ultramarathon and won an award from my running club for the ‘Most Improved Female Runner of 2019’!

I have also implemented England Athletics’ #RunAndTalk initiative within my running club.  The aim of this project is to improve mental health through running and to ensure that every running club in the country has a Mental Health Champion.  I qualified to do this at the end of 2019.

I’m happy to say, we now have a flourishing weekly #RunAndTalk group where runners can comfortably run/walk and connect within a mental health-friendly running community.

Running changes lives. Running saved mine.

Some of the people we’ve helped are: those who suffer with or are supporting others who have mental health difficulties, injured runners and people who quietly want to run within our supportive group and reach out to us if they need to. All of our group members say that they look forward to our weekly runs and that they feel so much better as a result.

Whilst I realise that running isn’t the only way to solve ailing mental health, for me and the hundreds of people I’ve spoken to, it has been a lifeline.

Running changes lives. Running saved mine.