9 Things I’ve Learned from Ultra Running About Mental Health

9 Things I’ve Learned from Ultra Running About Mental Health

BY MUIR EDITOR GEORGIA DANIELSON

 

By the time I reached 14, I’d never remembered color in my world. I’d never known anything in life to not feel weighted or to not be tired constantly. So when my parents and teachers hinted that I might be depressed, I’d deny it. Not out of teenage apathy or embarrassment, it’s just that I genuinely didn’t think it was true.

I see now that the causes were obvious: a chaotic upbringing, dreary midwest weather, and anemia, but as an adolescent, I didn’t believe it. I decided that everything felt hard and I felt hardly anything because of a shameful character flaw that I could purge from myself with enough force. This is when I started running.

I hated running, but that was the point: to train myself to do things I didn’t want to. Running would be my crucible to intentionally build mental toughness to conquer an irrational belief that was actually mental illness.  

Between my teens and mid-twenties, I realized that I could not outrun depression. Even though there are so many benefits from running, it is not a cure-all for mental health. These are the things I learned the hard way:


1. Numbing yourself to emotions doesn’t make them disappear

I found it’s pretty easy to numb myself by running long enough. I could reach physical and mental exhaustion, leaving no capacity to think clearly or feel emotions.

Relief from my problems was great for a while, but I learned that just because I couldn’t feel them didn’t mean they weren’t still there. When I’d recovered physically and mentally, the problems were right where I’d left them. I was putting effort into something, but it wasn’t in the right direction. I wasn’t resolving the stressor.  


2. Escaping your emotions is not dealing with them

Running – especially trail running – is an easy escape. I can lose myself in the wildness of a trail, feeling my body, an altered mental state, and maybe a little fear around the uncertainty of what I’m doing. I quickly realized that the longer I went, the more lost I could get.

Just like I couldn’t make my emotions disappear by changing my capacity to process them, I realized I couldn’t outrun my problems. Running gave me a break to clear my head and hit the reset button, but the core problems were still there when I got back.  


3. Constant exhaustion can build mental toughness, but it is not always proportional to fitness

Running myself into the ground did build mental toughness, but I errantly thought I was building health and strength, too.  

I thought, “I’m working so hard, my body will come back so much stronger.” I was actually just overtraining. I did this for years, and – not surprisingly – didn’t see much change in my running performance. 

It was only when I learned about proper training – stress/recovery management –and overtraining did I understand that constant exhaustion will most likely do more damage than build strength.

Running through exhaustion so regularly serves a purpose, but not a physical one.


4. Constant exhaustion left me with no energy to work on other areas of my life

Being exhausted all the time numbed me, but it also caused me to neglect other important areas of my life. It restricted my ability to be the best possible partner, the best possible co-worker, or really the best at anything else.  

Constant exhaustion helped me numb out depression and build mental toughness at the expense of my body and at the expense of other areas of my life.


5. Working on running is not the same as working on other parts of life. Beware of the halo effect.

Training for an ultra takes more work than typical running.  Not just during the workout, but peripherally. It requires more planning, more eating, more sleeping, more driving. And doing them gave me a sense of accomplishment. I felt, I’m working so hard! but it was only in one area of my life, and the other areas suffered.
 

6. Ultra running can be glorious, and that’s not always healthy

People are often impressed by the miles, the exotic places, the remoteness, the endurance. You ran how far?? You went by yourself? I loved that finally there was something I did that was different than everyone else. Something set me apart.  And I won’t deny that I enjoyed the attention. 

But I learned that running bigger and bigger mileage week after week was not helping me build strength or meet my goals. I would overrun my easy days because of how I wanted to appear on Strava. I’d run enormous weeks so I could be part of the ‘cool kids club.’ Getting caught up in the attention diverted my focus and caused me to overtrain.

Attention for ultra-running feats can be intoxicating, but I’ve found that if I’m not careful, it can compromise my goals and well-being.    


7. Being an ultra runner doesn’t mean you have a healthy relationship with food

My relationship with food has been like any relationship with a person: it’s better with conscious effort, is very nuanced, and has been an evolution.

Running more means more nutritional support, but this is not the same as ‘eat whatever you want.’ I’ve witnessed the ‘earn your food’ culture in ultra-running, around both quantity and quality. Often, ultramarathons are the only time a runner will drink Coke or eat pizza. They’ll use long runs as the only times they’ll eat until they’re full. It seems if you’ve struggled with food before, it’s much better to give that relationship attention of its own.

I’ve learned to never use running as an excuse to neglect nourishing my body.  


8. Mental toughness is not a long-term substitute for proper preparation

Making it through the Grand Canyon is entirely different from running through the Grand Canyon. It’s not just lazy to ignore proper preparation, it’s outright disrespectful to your body, the task, and the natural world.

I’ll raise my hand, I’m guilty. I’ve neglected proper training and relied solely on my ‘grit’ to finish races and runs I have no business starting. It’s good to test your limits, but at some point, it becomes disrespectful to your body and of the process. 

I’ve come to regard my training as a practice in respect by bringing my body to its full potential so I can connect most deeply with the natural world.

Even though I learned the hard way that you cannot outrun clinical depression, running has shaped who I am. It’s helped me build new pathways in my brain to think about things differently. It’s let me run away from problems when I wasn’t ready to face them, and given me time and space to calm down so I can revisit them with a clear mind.

Ultra running has helped me believe in my self-reliance and mental toughness. It’s shaped my identity – giving me one, which is an important place to start, but not a place to end.  It’s given me space and time and freedom to think by myself.

Ultra running is intoxicating and can add so much dimension to life, but it is not a cure-all for mental health. Keep putting in the work off the trail, and be conscious as often and as deeply as you can. And in true ultra runner fashion, just keep grinding.

 

Follow along with Georgia on Instagram or send her an email.