Sure, it’s good for your body, but being a runner has some positive effects on your character as well.
It’s a no-brainer that running is good for your body – it boosts metabolism, promotes bone and joint health and reduces risks of cancer – which are just three of these 6 Ways Running Improves Your Health. But as many regular runners can attest, the advantages of regular running go beyond physical benefits. Running is also good for your character.
“Running can help unearth or unleash certain personality traits,” says Michael Sachs, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Temple University and co-editor of Running as Therapy: An Integrated Approach. “The sport can show you what you’re capable of in one aspect of your life, which can then help you achieve goals in other areas, whether they are social, personal or professional.”
Here are seven ways that being a runner makes you a kinder, stronger and overall better human, as explained by Sachs, himself a runner for more than 41 years, and by several Runner’s World readers whose demeanours – in one form or another – have been transformed by the sport.
It Builds Mental Toughness
“It’s a trust that you get in yourself,” says Andrea Hanson, a 39-year-old life coach who took up running in 2000 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had initially hit the pavement to help slow the degenerative disease, but she soon realised she was reaping other rewards. Hanson describes the mental strength she finds by lacing up her sneaks: “When you see yourself persevere, it builds confidence and trust that you are the type of person who can overcome obstacles.”
Hanson relied on this self-trust recently when she and her family moved to a new city because of her husband’s job. She didn’t know anyone in her new city and describes the difference between her old and new city as being “as different as night and day”.
“At first I felt like a stranger in a strange world,” Hanson recalls. Simple tasks – like going to the supermarket – seemed overwhelming. But instead of shutting down, Hanson found solace in the mental strength she’d built as a runner. “Just as my body needed time to adapt when I first started running, I knew that I would need time to adjust.” Two months into the move, she talks about her new home with joy – and calmness.
Thanks to running, I have that belief in the back of my mind that it – whatever it is – is going to be ok.”
It Helps You Find the Gift in Suffering
Running can also help you learn to appreciate painful, challenging experiences. So says Akshay Nanavati, a 32-year-old writer and motivational speaker who became serious about running in 2007 when serving in Iraq with the US Marines. To relieve the stress of life at war, Nanavati began running laps around his unit’s base for up to four hours at a time. The monotonous routine granted mental peace and helped him find clarity in the midst of chaos.
When Nanavati returned to the States, he struggled with PTSD, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts. But once again he found, in running, a coping mechanism that helped him pull through.
“As a result of running, I have been able to endure, and enjoy the struggle of building a successful business, writing a book, and overcoming all the challenges I have ever faced,” says Nanavati. “I always remind myself that I am not trying to ‘get the struggle over with’, but rather I’m using it to remind myself of the meaning in life.”
Nanavati’s latest challenge: running across every country in the world. He’s up to eight so far. “It’s not even about completing the goal. It’s about the journey.”
It Increases Your Capacity for Change
Six years ago, Phyllis Strand’s relationship with running was simple: “I wouldn’t run if I were chased”. But the sudden, unexplained loss of vision in her right eye forced her to take a closer look at her health. Per her doctor’s recommendation, the 56-year-old advertising manager started running – and kept running.
Today, she’s 36 kilograms lighter, free of all previous health issues and the proud finisher of nearly a dozen half-marathons and one full marathon. The serious changes she’s seen in herself have encouraged her to evangelise others. She recently created a health and wellness initiative at her office and coached 10 colleagues to run the 2016 New York City marathon. “Running helped me feel like I could take control of my own health. And that inspired me to want to help others feel the same.”
Sachs describes this psychological effect as “an expanded capacity for change”.
“Running can show people that they are capable of making a positive change and mobilising their energy for the greater good,” he says. “This can spill over to many other aspects of a person’s life.”
It Boosts Confidence
Another mental benefit that Strand gained from running: confidence. And lots of it. In her pre-running era, Strand says she was a people pleaser and a “go-along-er.”
“I put everyone’s happiness before my own,” she recalls. Once she began running regularly – and experienced the euphoric effects – she decided to prioritise herself, and her own joy, more. The confidence boost she feels from running continually encourages this mindset, which has in turn improved her relationships with others. “Taking care of myself before others, and feeling that physical sense of accomplishment, helps me become a better mother, grandmother and coworker.”
It Sparks Creativity
“When you’re running familiar routes – like your usual neighbourhood loop – you can let your mind focus on other things. It’s a good way to get into the zone and become particularly creative at problem-solving,” says Sachs. Science agrees: a 2011 study in Creative Research Journal found that moderate aerobic exercise increases creative potential, both immediately post-exercise as well as two hours later.
Case in point: Chris Poelma, the 52-year-old president and general manager of NCR Small Business, a tech company where he says he conceptualised five different startups while marathon training. For Poelma, who starts nearly every morning with a run and averages 80 kilometres a week, running provides an unmatched sense of mental clarity and an uninterrupted space to solve problems. “The harder the problem, the longer I run,” he laughs, recalling a 28K run during which he developed a win-win solution for a complex foreign partnership negotiation.
“If I miss a day’s run, my thoughts aren’t as clear. I can be rushed for judgment and less thoughtful on decisions,” says Poelma. “I think running opens your mind to what is already there.”
It Breeds Camaraderie
Many seasoned – and even novice – runners will tell you that it induces feel-good vibes (aka the runner’s high), which are caused by hormones called endocannabinoids. This positivity can be infectious.
Even though running is frequently solitary, “you can see from other runners the friendliness and camaraderie of the sport,” says Sachs, “whether it’s sharing a smile, a wave or providing support.” Sachs experienced this firsthand during a recent 7K trail race. As a novice trail runner, he stumbled along the path and the runners behind him immediately offered help and advice on navigating the terrain.
This sense of congeniality is what initially got Strand hooked on running. During her first ever race she enjoyed meeting and chatting with friendly participants in the starting area nearly as much as the race itself. “I realised that this was the type of supportive, positive community I wanted to be part of.”
It Fosters Humility
Ever seen the dreaded DNF next to your name? Been sidelined by unexpected pain? Or perhaps just had an inexplicably crappy race despite logging long, hard hours of training?
“Running can be the ultimate check on your hubris,” says Sachs.
With the sport come various obstacles – like injuries, illnesses, bad weather and rough terrain – that can deter progress and humble the most confident, successful athletes among us. (Think: Paula Radcliffe and the 2004 Olympic Marathon or Eliud Kipchoge’s shoe fiasco in the 2015 Berlin Marathon). Run long enough and you’ll experience enough setbacks to learn that no runner is immune to hardship. Besides, those hardships ultimately make us better runners – and more resilient people.