How running helped me to overcome loneliness

·10-min read

According to research commission by the Mental Health Foundation, one in four UK adults feel lonely some or all of the time. This year, for Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15), the Foundation is exploring how loneliness affects our mental health and is encouraging people to share their experiences to break the stigma associated with loneliness and mental health.

‘Our data shows how loneliness is affecting the mental health of millions of people across the UK,’ says Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Foundation. ‘We also know the longer we feel lonely, the greater the risk of poor mental health. Loneliness can be toxic and lead to anxiety and depression and is also associated with increased thoughts of suicide.’

There are lots of things we can do to help cope with loneliness, and The Mental Health Foundation suggest strategies which include: participating in physical activity, interacting with like-minded people and spending time doing things you enjoy.

Happily, running ticks all these boxes. While on the surface it may appear to be a very individual sport, the running community has proven to be positive, welcoming and inclusive – and a great place to meet, spend time with, and build meaningful connections with like-minded people.

From speaking to our readers, we know that, for those who are struggling with mental health problems, the sport can also help to combat isolation by giving people a reason to leave their houses. Others have also shared how running has helped them to feel better about spending time with themselves.

Here, nine runners share their experiences of how the sport, and their running buddies, have lessened feelings of isolation and ultimately changed their lives for the better…

Running has given Yvonne Kerrigan, 42, a reason to leave the house after her husband Martin passed away in December 2020. She says…

‘In February 2021 I knew I needed to do something, I needed a reason to leave the house, I needed a reason to get up. I participated in a run for life 10km last year and I joined parkrun this March, which has been good for me (I'm not great on the sociable side of things, but parkrun allows me to be among people without the obligation to engage if I don't want to) and I'll be running the Great North Run in September for the hospice that looked after Martin.

Running has really been a big help in focusing my mind on something. If I'm having a particularly bad day, going for a run normally (not always) boosts me. The longer runs give me lots of time to play back wonderful memories of Martin, so if people see me running and randomly smiling, it's because I'm in a happy place with my love.’

After joining a running group in lockdown, Helen Andrews, 41, found new friends and a new partner. She says…

‘I live by myself and during lockdown I started doing couch to 5K. I run regularly now, race regularly and did my first half marathon last year. During my training I joined a running group and met my new friends and a new partner. I’m divorced and had had enough of men and dating and had completely lost hope. My new partner has made me realise I can find love again.

I’ve also made a new friend who also lives by herself, and we run together some evenings for safety and also a good chat and catch up. Running has changed my life.’

Sarah Alexander, 42, has social anxiety and has suffered from depression. She says running has given her the courage to leave her house and speak to new people…

‘I suffer with social anxiety and stopped doing any form of exercise. I finally took the plunge and started my running again recently. Running got me out of post-natal depression many years ago. And it really does help your mental health. I’m still not great but have more good days when I’ve been out running. It’s nice to have time for me and being outside and not shutting myself away at home.

I wouldn’t say I have overcome my social anxiety but [it’s helped by giving me a reason to] take the courage to step outside and not worry what people think – and just enjoy my playlist and enjoy nature, and it gets me saying hello to new people. Parkrun got me going again and people are so lovely. When I feel more fit, I think I may take that leap of faith and join a running club and maybe I might make some friends along the way and overcome that fear of talking to people.’

Joining a running club has helped Iso Neville, 24, feel less lonely in a big city. She says…

‘During the first lockdown I realised that I didn’t have anyone I knew within walking distance of me and vowed to invest more time making local friends when restrictions eased. As soon as they did, I joined London City Runners. It was free, local and incredibly welcoming. From there I’ve made amazing friends and even met my now boyfriend, too.

Joining the club connected me with so many likeminded locals, and helped me feel less lonely in such a big city. It was the perfect antidote after months of lockdown isolation.’

For Lee Watkins, 51, running has transformed his mental health. He’s made lifelong friends along the way and now advocates running to others who are suffering from mental health problems. He says…

‘My passion for running started in 2014. I was going through a very difficult time in my life struggling with depression and self-harming, and a friend of mine mentioned to me that getting outside and trying some activity might help.

The Bournemouth Bay Run was coming up, and on a whim, I signed up to the 5km. Having never really ran before, on the day of the run I was nervous to say the least. I finished the 5km and that was such a big thing for me. From that day on, I have never stopped running, never taken medication again, and if I feel my mood changing, I get my kit on and go for a run. It's the best medication for my illness I have ever found.

I run when I can with close friends, who have a running club called runFAR in Poole, Dorset. It brings liked-minded people together. I have met some amazing people through running – some lifelong friends who have helped me with my mental health, and I have helped them with theirs. I would promote running and a fresh air to anyone feeling low – get up, get out there and, trust me, you will feel amazing.’

Agnieszka says trail running has made her feel less lonely by helping her to feel better about spending time with herself. She says...

‘Running made me appreciate being on my own in a way that I can achieve something and challenge myself. I started running trails on my own as a challenge and gradually I gained experience and confidence and started enjoying the solitude runs. It's like I found a friend in running itself and the sport became my companion. Some friends or even people who live nearby started noticing me out and about and some joined me on my adventures.

‘I think running is a great way to encourage people and challenge yourself. Sometimes you can do it on your own because you have that kind of drive, and it will help you feel happy and not as lonely, and then you can create a small running community based on the sport you all enjoy. I love running and exploring on my own, and I enjoy sharing that passion with others. It's a perfect balance of dealing with loneliness, having your own space and building strong friendships with like-minded people. For that reason I love running so much.’

Sylv, 43, says taking up running and joining a club saved her when she was in a 'mental black hole'. She says…

‘It was a chain of events that led me to taking up running. I had always been a horse lover and dreamed of owning my own. Sadly, I had to have my horse put down in 2018, and having such a huge part of my life disappear (along with a few problems in my personal life) it left a huge hole and I didn't know what to do with myself, leading to a low period I just couldn't recover from.

A friend suggested running and helped me get going and recommended a club. I plucked up the courage to join and it was literally life changing. I've made so many amazing friends, and achieved things beyond my wildest dreams such as running the Manchester Marathon. We trained together which got us all through the brutal process. We don't just run together but socialise, and it's like a family. We mercilessly make fun of each other too! I was amazed at just how friendly and welcoming runners are. A lot of us take it up to help with our mental health and boy does it work.’

Karen Smith, 35, will be forever grateful for the companionship of her running buddies during the Covid-19 lockdowns. She says, without them, it would have been a terrible, lonely time…

‘I love the energy I get from being around people: especially those who also share the same running buzz.

I made a great group of friends from my local running club, and having moved to the area knowing no one, it helped me to feel really secure. Then lockdown came and the physical connection was partly broken. Luckily, we were able to get running again with a solo individual and so #karencare began. What started as a gentle joke – as everyone knows I love being with friends – actually prevented me from suffering from loneliness by ensuring that, out of all our friends, I always had someone to run with.

One individual in particular really supported the cause, and it was almost a religious outing every Sunday. Becoming even more valuable in the second lockdown. I couldn't have done it without those friends. Without them it would have been a terrible, lonely time. Being able to run and chat, and having it booked in the diary, gave me that energy I thrive off and kept me going.'

Running – and her local running club – made Bernie Carroll, 33, feel less isolated during a difficult period in her life. She says it’s also made her feel happier, more confident and more driven...

'I started running three years ago with a local running group (Pontyclun Road Runners) as well as regularly attending a parkrun every Saturday. I never experienced so much positivity and team spirit in a sport in my life. This was where I built the most amazing friendships and met the most amazing people.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I became depressed and isolated working as a student nurse, and I missed the club and going outdoors to relieve some stress. After some time, we were allowed to run in designated 'bubbles', and I felt like crying with happiness on the first session with my bubble. The start of the 'bubbles' could not have come at a better time for me.

At Christmas last year I wasn't running weekly and my eczema flared up. I became too self-conscious to go out. The following January, I managed to have the courage to leave a toxic relationship, while also doing assignments and exams, which led to even more stress. Once recovered, I went back to the club and promised myself to attend at least one sessions a week. In March I did my longest race/ run ever ­– the San Domenico 20 and booked for many more races this year. I am in my last year of university now and feeling so positive and optimistic. If it wasn't for the amazing running community, my family and friends I would've continued to be ill and have no ambition.'

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