13 Benefits of Running That Will Make You Want to Log Some Miles
Even in non-pandemic times, the benefits of running have persuaded many beginners to lace up and hit the streets, trails, and tracks. But now more than ever—with many people still avoiding gyms but looking for a way to exercise outside of their living rooms—running has become perhaps even more appealing.
Shoe-company Asics, which owns the fitness-tracking app Runkeeper, last year reported a 62% spike worldwide in people heading out for a weekly run. And those who already ran regularly did more of it—a year-end report by athletic social media site Strava found runners uploaded nearly twice as many outdoor training sessions in the spring and summer of 2020 as they did in 2019.
The numbers reflect what licensed clinical psychologist and runner Karen Bagley, Ph.D., M.P.H., has seen among her clients at Momentum Psychology and Performance in Woodbridge, Virginia. “When other aspects of their lives are on pause and shut down a little bit, people really feel like, I need to get out into the world,” she tells SELF. Running—with its rhythmic simplicity and lower barrier to entry than other many other forms of exercise—represents a natural choice.
The benefits of running span both physical and mental. We’ll get into those in a few, but before we do, there are some things you should keep in mind before lacing up, especially if you’re new to this form of exercise.
What do you need to know before starting running?
Running is simple, but there are a few key considerations for starting a new running program. For one thing, proper equipment plays a larger role in this form of exercise than it may in other kinds.
The right shoes matter a lot with running: You’ll be producing a lot of force with each stride, so you want to choose a pair that’s supportive and comfortable. It’s often very helpful to visit a specialty running store to try on a few different pairs so you can see what feels right for you, as SELF reported previously. (If you’d understandably rather stay away from in-person shopping right now, choosing an online retailer with easy returns would be a solid option too.) You’d also want to choose a sports bra that offers you enough support for high-impact activity.
And then there’s safety. Depending on factors like location or race, some people may not feel secure running by themselves or at certain times of day—or may feel like they may not be able to exercise outdoors at all. (One thing that can help in low light is equipment to make you more visible to cars, but other issues, like systemic racism and lack of access to safe outdoor spaces, require more long-term solutions no one individual can provide on their own.)
Progression is big too: Whether you’re doing it outdoors or on the treadmill, because running is high impact, it’s best to start slowly and gradually increase your mileage over time. One good way to do this is to start out walking—say, for 30 minutes, three times a week. From there, add in brief intervals of running, Subha Lembach, a certified running coach in Columbus, Ohio, who works with many new runners, tells SELF.
Over time, you can gradually increase your faster intervals until you’re running continuously. Then you can slowly ramp up the amount of time you run or the distance you’re covering. As you do, it’s a good idea to incorporate cross-training and strength training to keep your body in balance and avoid overuse injuries, Lembach says.
Once you’ve got the basics down, you can get started running—and reaping the benefits of it for your body, mind, and spirit. Here are 13 benefits of running newbies and seasoned runners alike might want to keep in mind.
1. Running strengthens your whole musculoskeletal system.
A finely tuned symphony of lower-body muscles—including your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes—power you down the road or up hills, physical therapist Rhianna Green, D.P.T., the Washington, D.C., clinic director at Performance Care Clinics and a member of the District Running Collective, tells SELF. Upper-body and core muscles play a role in running efficiency too. (Of course, proper form and training—not overtraining—are important in reaping these strengthening benefits.)
And those aren’t the only body parts you’re strengthening, Megan Roche, M.D., a running coach, physician, genetics consultant, and clinical researcher working on her Ph.D. in epidemiology, tells SELF. Your tendons, ligaments, and bones also adapt to the pounding of running by building resilience. Bone strength is particularly important, since beginning in menopause, hormonal shifts cause bone density to decline, increasing your chances of osteopenia (weakening of your bones), osteoporosis, and fractures, says Dr. Green.
Up through your 20s, weight-bearing exercises like running can help you increase your peak bone density. Afterward, running helps you maintain the density you have and decrease the rate at which it seeps away as you age. “The human body is this tool that we can use for movement for decades, and having that stronger foundation, to me, is very cool,” Dr. Roche says.
2. Surprisingly, it may improve knee health for some people.
Some people feel wary about getting started running because of the belief that it’ll wreck their knees. Research, however, doesn’t actually back that up. Over the long term, research suggests running doesn’t increase the risk of arthritis, at least for people who run at a recreational level. In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis of 25 studies concluded that recreational runners were actually less likely to develop knee arthritis than sedentary people (or professional/elite runners) were. And one small 2019 study published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine of 82 marathoners even found marathon running improved some aspects of knee health in middle-aged runners, perhaps by reducing inflammation in the joint. (It also did find some asymptomatic wearing of cartilage along the side of the knee in some of the runners, though.)
Knee pain does tend to be a common complaint among the runners Dr. Green sees in her office. In many cases, there’s a relatively simple fix, she says: strengthening your legs and hips (like with this runner-focused strength workout), changing shoes every 500 miles or so, and switching up the surfaces you run on (like spending some time on softer trails or grass in addition to hard concrete). In some cases, though, pre-existing serious conditions like knee osteoarthritis, joint replacements, or failed ACL reconstructions might mean you should consider a different sport.
3. Running can improve heart health.
Government guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (or a combination of the two) for optimal cardiovascular health. Regardless of your pace, running fits that vigorous bill. According to a review published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2015, you might not even need that much. Runners who went out once or twice per week, for a total of six miles or less, reaped as many heart-health benefits as marathoners.
It makes sense—after all, your heart’s a muscle, too, Dr. Roche says. Just as you might notice more muscle in your quads and calves as you run, you can visualize your cardiac strength increasing. A stronger heart can pump more blood out with every beat, making your entire cardiovascular system that much more efficient and resilient.
4. And reduce your risk of many other chronic diseases.
Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, stroke, vision loss, and other health issues, according to the American Heart Association. Medication can help, but running can help lower it too: A 2020 research review in the journal Sports Medicine concluded a regular running habit reduces resting systolic blood pressure (the top number) to the tune of about 4.2 mmHg. (Note: Don’t skip any meds without consulting your doctor, but some may let you try lifestyle changes first, or in addition to, prescriptions.)
Studies also show a whole host of other health-promoting benefits for lacing up, running coach, elite runner, and public health consultant Kaitlin Goodman, M.P.H, tells SELF. You may lower your risk of diabetes, respiratory diseases, and some cancers, perhaps by improving your body’s ability to control blood glucose and reducing inflammation.
5. Running can anchor a whole host of healthy habits.
One of Dr. Roche’s areas of research involves lifestyle behaviors—the choices people make every day about things like nutrition, sleep, and exercise. “One of the biggest things is cue reinforcement,” she says. “There’s this cascade that, once you take this step to get out the door to run, it makes some of the other positive behaviors easier.”
After all, once you’re hitting the pavement regularly, you’ll probably think more about how you’re fueling your miles. And you’re likely to prioritize heading to bed earlier if you’ve set an early-morning alarm for your run. Pretty soon, you may acquire what Lembach calls a “runner’s identity,” and find yourself structuring your days and routines around when you can get out the door, and how you can feel your best when you get there.
6. Running can improve your mood.
Anxiety, depression, stress—many people experienced these conditions before the COVID-19 pandemic. And this past year has compounded those mental health effects. During late June, 40% of Americans were struggling with mental health conditions or substance abuse, according to survey results published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Running (or any form of exercise) isn’t a cure-all, and sometimes medications or therapy are also required. But as a 2020 review of 116 studies in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health points out, there’s strong evidence running could be an effective way to help address many mental health challenges. (That’s provided it doesn’t become a compulsive need to exercise, the authors warn, and Dr. Bagley concurs.)
Running can be particularly helpful for COVID-related mental health concerns, Dr. Bagley says. Many of her clients who already had anxiety now feel even more fearful of leaving their homes. Getting out the door (as safely as possible, of course) not only provides movement and fresh air, but “you’re confronting that anxiety a little more head on.”
7. The activity of running may help you cultivate mindfulness.
One way running exerts its psychological power is through mindfulness—the practice of tuning into the present. Especially if you leave your headphones behind, something Philadelphia-based running coach Vanessa Peralta-Mitchell recommends doing for at least some of your runs, it may be the one time of day you’re not doing 50 things at once.
Once runners tap into this mental clarity, they’re often compelled to seek more of it—Dr. Roche says she often sees athletes get curious about meditation after they’ve been consistently logging miles for a while.
You can heighten this experience by using what Dr. Bagley calls “sensate focus.” Make mental notes of what you hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste on your route. That can help pull you out of an internal state where you might be experiencing a lot of stress, she says.
8. Running gives you practice setting goals and plenty of chances to celebrate.
Even with fewer in-person races due to the pandemic, running offers ample opportunities to set a goal and go for it. Maybe you want to go farther than you ever have, run a mile a day for a month, or get your fastest time in a virtual challenge.
Getting there will require breaking a big goal down into step-by-step processes. “That skill translates mentally into other things—say, if you want to start a business or a new job,” Peralta-Mitchell says.
And those goals and milestones have value in their own right. “A lot of people felt like 2020 was a lost year—we lost family time, we lost travel, we lost jobs, we lost people,” Goodman says.
But many of her runners, even those with frontline jobs or other life challenges, trained hard and did well in virtual races anyway. Even just reveling in a long run, a consistent week of training, or a beautiful trail scene can train your focus on the positive. “There was something to be gained through running,” Goodman says.
9. Through running, you also learn resilience.
Even optimistic runners like Dr. Roche (who co-authored a book called The Happy Runner) and Goodman (whose coaching company is called Running Joyfully) admit not every single run is a great one. Especially if you’re a new runner or dabbling in faster paces or longer distances, things can get a bit uncomfortable.
“You can use self-talk in the middle of a workout to talk yourself through the hard miles or keep going if you want to give up,” Goodman says. “I’ve heard a lot of people reference that—‘Well, I feel like I’m able to tackle this hard thing, whether it’s in work or in my personal life, because I know I can do hard things on the run.”
Peralta-Mitchell recalls the confidence she built from running her first marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon. “You start to think that nothing is impossible,” she says. “That really carries over to other things in life, in terms of, you can conquer the unconquerable.”
10. It doubles as social time and can lead to deep friendships.
“If you can run safely with a mask with others, it’s a great way to combat social isolation, which many of us are feeling right now,” Goodman says. Joining a running group can help you make friends when you move to a new place. Often, the bonds you build over the miles—doing a difficult activity together—wind up being particularly strong.
“You’re able to open up and be vulnerable with someone when you’re side by side, in parallel, in ways that you’re not when you’re face to face,” Dr. Bagley says. “It’s like, I can trust this person because they’re struggling in ways that feel really similar, and they’re cheerleading for me when I’m struggling.”
Even when the pandemic prevented groups from gathering in person, the running community got creative. Peralta-Mitchell and one of the groups she leads met up on Zoom for a pre-run stretch and post-run cooldown even when they couldn’t sweat together in person. Others have staged socially distanced scavenger hunts, Strava challenges, or other separate-but-together endeavors.
11. Running connects you to a community.
Pacing through the streets and parks near you can help you feel grounded and connected to your surroundings. For years, Goodman lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and reveled in seeing the seasonal changes around her—the fall leaves, the holiday lights—as well as the consistency of neighbors walking their dogs.
It’s the habitual nature of running—if you’re on the same route around the same time, you’re going to start to see the same people and forge some connections and community that way, she says. You might also notice landmarks you’d never see otherwise or spot the latest cute new shop or cafe.
12. And it serves as an avenue for activism.
Of course, fully engaging in a community may open your eyes to aspects of it that need to change. People of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and others who are marginalized may not feel welcome in running groups or see themselves represented in the sport as a whole. Some people may not feel safe enough to run at all in public, whether it’s due to their identity or the conditions around them.
Running tends to attract “curious, passionate” people, Dr. Roche says, and when you combine those tendencies with an opportunity to clear your mind and think creative thoughts, many are moved to take action.
For instance, as she got deeper into the sport, Peralta-Mitchell noticed that few running coaches were women of color. She got certified herself in 2017, and last year she started a mentorship program to guide—and fully fund—16 other runners of color through the Road Runners Club of America Run Coach Certification.
“Within the running world, there’s a burgeoning awareness now about having spaces that really emphasize and recognize value in diversity, whether that is race or ethnicity, whether that’s gender identity or sexuality, and really having spaces that feel safe for all kinds of runners,” Dr. Bagley says. “Through this one thing, we now have an opportunity to open up a bigger space, and talk about things that might be difficult but are really important.”
More runners are speaking out about safety issues too. For example, in 2018, a close call with a distracted driver left Goodman with a torn hamstring. Afterward, she started attending public meetings and talking to city officials about ways to make streets safer for runners and walkers. In 2019, she started a nonprofit called Safe on the Road, which blends her running and public-health backgrounds into an avenue for advocacy. She also uses her social media platform to advocate for mask wearing while running and other efforts to curb the pandemic.
13. For many people, running can be a lifelong pursuit—and even add years to your life.
With a few exceptions, such as those with joint problems, you can keep running into your later years. That’s a contrast from other sports, such as field hockey, which Dr. Roche played in college. “I was always attracted to running, because I thought, Hopefully I can do this forever,” she says.
And those who can keep it up may reap benefits in longevity. In one 2019 research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists crunched the numbers and found that runners had a 27% lower risk of an early death than non-runners; another, published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases in 2017, found those who stride regularly live about three years longer than those who don’t. And, those years are likely to be healthier ones, a phenomenon called “compression of morbidity” that’s also enhanced in runners. (Of course, these are observational studies and can’t confirm cause and effect. While the studies controlled for possible confounders, it’s possible that people who run regularly also have other healthy lifestyle habits—like we mentioned in number five above—that can help account for that risk reduction.)
While the exact benefits of running can be difficult to quantify, the perks are certainly far-reaching. It’s no wonder those who have turned to running during the pandemic don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. The Asics study, for instance, found three-fourths of runners planned to maintain their mileage, even after they’ve outpaced the COVID-19 crisis.
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