How running saved me and my mind
On International Stress Awareness Day, Anastasiia Fedorova pens her journey to discovering the healing power of running
Wednesday 2 November 2022. By Anastasiia Fedorova Photography by Anya Gorkova
In May 2021, I walked into my local park and opened the beginner friendly, Couch to 5K app. My first task was to run for two minutes. It’s OK, I thought, I guess I can do that.
All my life, I thought that running was not for me. Running was for fit, happy and functional people in fresh matching sets of sportswear. I was wearing ancient leggings and a washed-out T-shirt with a couple of holes – and I was depressed.
London was opening up after two severe years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was time to feel better – but I didn’t. Two years of lockdowns and Zoom meetings lay unprocessed in my system, the pressure to be social and act ‘normal’ was rising, and the continuous unravelling of the world was still broadcasted on social media. Having suffered from anxiety for most of my life, I could feel it slicing at my nervous system like a blunt tin opener. On top of that, I was heartbroken and recovering from a knee injury – a complete mess rather than a promising athlete. I took a deep breath and pressed start.
Originally, I took up running to have something that would simply get me out of the house – to get some daily vitamin D and a feel-good rush of happy endorphins. Surprisingly, it became much more of a powerful experience. Running offered some great lessons that extended beyond the sport. It taught me that things which appear impossible at first are very much possible when you put in just a little bit of work, each and every day. And that, at times, exhaustion is merely a state of mind.
After a few months, I managed to run non-stop for 20 minutes. My legs were burning and I felt like throwing up; I was gulping for air with a palpable sense of achievement. Even when something felt like an impossible struggle, initial stress and panic eventually passed – my mind was alarmed but my body managed just fine. During a particularly difficult stretch of the run, there was nothing else but my heartbeat and heavy breathing, the sunlight through the trees and a sense of flying forward. At the end, I was awash with soft waves of dopamine. Life was not only manageable again – but beautiful.
Gradually, running became less of a struggle. A year on, I could run 10K and feel fine at the end. And the positive, mental impact remained. Sometimes at the start of the run, my mind restlessly bounced around with hundreds of fragmented thoughts and worries – by the end, it would have settled, leaving me focused and content. Sometimes, when I faced a particularly stressful project at work, I would recall powerful runs in an attempt to calm my nervous system and keep going with a newly acquired confidence. All this time, I would wonder, what took me so long – getting to my early thirties – to discover how great running was.
As a kid, I was nerdy and chubby – that one who always forgets her PE kit and sits sullenly in the corner. As a young adult, I mostly saw exercise as something connected with repression, competition and goals – weight to lose, numbers to hit. I couldn’t see myself in this culture – as much as I couldn’t see myself in the images that gyms and sportswear brands homogenously broadcasted. It felt like the mainstream wellness culture hardly had space for depressed, anxious and not particularly active people – or a conversation about mental health all together.
A couple of years ago, I came across the term ‘bodymind’, which is occasionally used by academics when writing about chronic pain and disability. It seeks to create a more nuanced understanding of how we function as complex beings, linking the physical and mental body as one. Pain, for example, could be felt both as a somatic sensation and as an emotion; anxieties are both a mental struggle and a source of physical tension. These connections seem simple – yet sometimes difficult to apply to yourself in practice. There is a direct link between physical and mental levels of our existence – and this knowledge could be incredibly empowering.
Discovering the concept of ‘bodymind’ has afforded me a renewed sense of connection: seeing my body as part of my complex, whole self; treating it with more empathy and kindness. It taught me to be more mindful about my emotional states, too, knowing that they often have direct physical implications.
Now, every time I put on my trainers, I think of how many times running has metaphorically saved my life – how it has pulled me out of the despair and anxious stupor on numerous occasions, and how much further it allows me to travel into my own sense of self. For me that is the real power of running, and I guess I can keep doing that.