Calling all running fans! We’re pleased to present a Q&A with Jeff Barton, AKA Jeff the Runner, who – for lack of a better word – runs a website that offers “advice and stories from the intersection of running and life.”
One of the main things Jeff focuses on with his website is how running can help clear the mind and provide an escape from the stresses of everyday life, as well as how it plays a role in helping people cope with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
An avid writer, Jeff is also a certified Catalyst Life Coach, offering sessions for health & wellness, career & life transitions, fitness, relationships, romance, anxiety, self-confidence, purpose & calling.
All in all, Jeff’s professional background, strong writing skill-set and passion for running ensure his website is a very interesting and insightful read.
Read on for the Q&A and learn more about Jeff’s views on running, mental health, the link between both and more!
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you originally find yourself interested in running as a personal hobby?
I participated in track and field as a kid and used to run occasionally in my 20’s but mostly just for fun. I always enjoyed running but it wasn’t until my mid 40’s that I began to take it seriously.
I became tired of always feeling tired. I told myself at the time that I wanted to get back in shape, but when I think about it now, it was more about regaining control over something I felt I had lost.
And that was myself. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and never looked back.
Was the link between running and its benefits for mental health immediately apparent to you? Was it something you expected when you first started running?
Initially, I think it was more about just surviving, as I was so out of shape that each run felt like a chore.
I had no expectations of what it would do for me mentally, as it was more about the physical aspect at the time. But once I completed the Couch to 5k program, that is when the mental health benefits seemed to kick in. I remember running 4 miles not long after completing the program and was just so proud of myself for running that far.
I had a friend who started running at about the same time and I called him and told him about the run because I had to share it with someone. It was the start of what I consider a re-birth of my confidence and life.
From there, running became something I needed to do.
In your article Running as a Place to Rest, you discuss how running has made you a better father, partner and person. It’s absolutely wonderful you’ve been able to make this connection – if you don’t mind, can you go into more detail about this, and when you first realized it was apparent?
Probably the biggest impact running has had on me is how I feel. Mentally, physically, and most importantly, I believe, emotionally.
Numerous studies show that exercise reduces stress, improves and stabilizes mood, and helps with sleep. This has been more than true for me. Running allows me to rest from all the stresses of everyday life and it becomes an outlet for that stress. When I run, I release everything through the act of running, and I am a much better person to be around.
Similar to the impact therapy has for me, running gets rid of all of my pent-up emotions and it clears my mind. It has been one of the best activities which has helped me in battling depression and anxiety.
Before, I would let my emotions get the best of me and it showed through my actions and reactions. Now, if I’m feeling anxious or upset, I can go for a run and it helps my mental and emotional state.
Another way is that running has taught me patience. You don’t go from the couch to running ultramarathons overnight. It takes time to build the stamina to get the point where you can run for hours at a time. That patience carries over into my parenting, relationships, my career, and into every other aspect of my life.
Finally, running has turned into a passion for me, something which I’ve never had before. I also found purpose in it as well, and by sharing my story about mental health and running with others, it builds community and connection and lets people know they aren’t alone.
I first made this connection after running my first race. It was a 5k, and I ended up getting 2nd in my age group. I remember how much happier I was after that race and how much my attitude and excitement about life had changed since I began running.
I realized at that point that running makes me happier, and I think that reflects in my everyday attitude.
Having personally experienced the positive mental effects of running, what advice would you give to those who are hesitant to start – particularly individuals suffering from depression, anxiety or similar issues?
When you are battling mental health issues, it can feel almost impossible to even get out of bed. I know because I’ve been there. So any advice is relative to the situation and often isn’t useful for someone in the midst of a deep depression.
But what I found to be helpful for me was finding an accountability partner or friend who is willing to run with you. My friend who started running at the same time as me became someone I could talk to not only about running, but life. And it helped both of us, as he was going through something at the time as well.
Motivation on its own is fleeting and very hard to come by when you are depressed. However, if you have someone to keep you accountable, it helps to create a habit. And changing our habits, especially from a bad one to a good one, is the way toward growth.
Also, sign up for a race! If you know that will have to run a 5k, 10k or whatever distance you sign up for soon, it can be a lot easier for you to get out and do the work. You are invested when you spend the money upfront and it can give you a goal to reach for.
But set a goal which is realistic. Don’t sign up for a marathon in two months if you’ve never run before. This will just make you feel worse than before. But do track your progress, as this will show you how far you’ve come and can encourage you to continue to get better.
Along the same lines, join a local running group to help get you started. Not only do they provide opportunities to train, the running community is such a welcoming and encouraging family and the camaraderie I’ve experienced since becoming a runner is like nothing I’ve experienced before.
And finally, start slow and don’t get discouraged if it’s hard at first. Because it will be. Take it one day at a time.
In a similar vein to the previous question, running may simply not be for everyone. How do you recommend others go about finding their own personal safe places/escapes via physical activity?
I think you have to experiment a little, especially if you’ve never been someone who has taken part in physical activities.
I agree that running will not be for everyone, but there are all kinds of other things that will have the same benefits. Yoga is transformative for many people and it also gives the opportunity to be around others. Hiking is another activity many enjoy.
For me, just having other people near me breaks up that sense of loneliness I experienced during a depression.
Even thinking back to your childhood and trying to remember what physical activities you enjoyed then may be a way to find something. I loved playing basketball as a child and sometimes I will go to the court and shoot some baskets. It’s a way to connect back to your childhood and it may give you a renewed sense of hope.
Plus, starting out with something you know you already enjoy will help in getting started and establishing a regular routine.
Do you yourself take part in any other physical hobbies you consider an escape, from which you think others may benefit if they’re struggling mentally?
Besides running, I work out with weights regularly and hike. I have a mountain bike I ride through the desert occasionally.
But it doesn’t have to be anything rigorous. I like to go for a walk around my neighborhood and even the simple act of getting outside has been shown to have incredible health benefits. I think many people would benefit from just going on a walk. You can put in your headphones, listen to your favorite podcast or song, and enjoy being outside.
I found that a lot of my struggling mentally came from keeping myself isolated and inside. I know a lot of others do the same. It becomes a pattern because you feel alone in those times, and that isolation makes things much worse.
And while I haven’t done this in a while, I used to own a punching bag and when I felt stressed, angry, or just down, I would go a few rounds with the bag. It has all the same mental health benefits as other exercises and is an incredible workout physically.
Outside of physical activity, do you have any favoured mental techniques for relaxation, stress relief and escape from day-to-day anxiety?
The main mental technique which helps me manage the daily anxiety is meditation. It is a wonderful tool to help recognize how our thoughts impact our daily life and it is something that can be done at any time of the day. It’s free and doesn’t require you to be an expert. It just requires practice and as little as 10 minutes a day.
Along with meditation, being mindful of my thoughts and the present moment has done wonders for my anxiety because it reminds me all I have is now. Mindfulness is not about trying to control the thoughts that come, it’s about learning to recognize how we react to those thoughts.
When I find myself lost in thought, I will ask myself, “Are these thoughts useful?” and “Do they serve a purpose other than worry?”
This is what being mindful means to me. It’s realizing I don’t have control over what enters my mind, but I do have control over what I do with those thoughts and what they mean. I remember the external is beyond my control but the internal is within my control.
You’re also a certified Catalyst Life Coach. Do you often discuss or recommend running, or exercise in general, to clients who come to you for health & wellness, anxiety and similar issues?
Every client is different and what I try to do is get them to figure out for themselves what would most benefit them.
I want them to recognize what would be helpful instead of telling them what I think would be helpful. I want them to come out on the other end of their coaching session thinking they have the power to make these decisions and create solutions on their own instead of me telling them what to do. If they lead the conversation that way, then I do recommend some type of physical activity, according to the client.
Although I am a certified life coach, I am not a licensed therapist, so I will often recommend therapy for dealing with many mental health issues.
I will also share some of my story about running and my own battles with anxiety if I believe it relates to the client, their journey, and it can assist in their transformation. I believe it’s helpful for the client to know they are not alone and that everyone struggles.
On the topic of mental health as a whole, what else do you think can be done to help reduce the stigma in schools, the workplace, among friends & family, and in society in general?
I think the number one thing we can do as a society to help lessen the stigma is openly talk about everything related to mental health.
There is such a shame culture when it comes to seeking help for and having any type of mental health issue. I believe this is especially true for men. And most of us as individuals are at a loss on how we should help someone or even talk to one another about mental illness. Those who suffer can be shunned instead of receiving empathy and compassion.
I also believe education is key. I think teaching emotional health and awareness of mental illness in schools is vital. The earlier we can have people see that mental illness is akin to physical illness, the better equipped we are to deal with it, and the easier it is to understand and have compassion for those who battle with it.
Thank you so much for your time and insights, Jeff. We’d like to wish you the best of luck on your personal & professional journeys, and hope you continue to find peace and happiness through running! Any last words of advice you’d like to give our readers?
The best advice I can give when it comes to running is you need to allow yourself to be a beginner. Everyone who runs was once a beginner, so focus on what you can or will do, not on what you aren’t able to do. The only competition you have is yourself.
As far as life, don’t dream it away. Pursue what you want, be who you want to be, and lead with love and kindness toward others. Live in the moment and take some chances because you only get one shot at it.