Isabel Kay is a cross country and track runner at Pinewood Preparatory School in the graduating class of 2021.
The correlation between mental health and running is proven to increase a person’s emotional well-being and psychological condition in a positive manner.
According to a 2004 study published in the Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, “depressed adults who took part in a fitness program displayed significantly greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and self-concept than those in a control group after 12 weeks of training.”
Although longer runs “are known to release endorphins, which are our body’s natural pain killers... shorter runs also have stress relief benefits,” said Alecia Good, a Certified Athletic Trainer at Pinewood Preparatory School and MUSC Sports Medicine.
When the runner is unable to perform, the inverse is true. Student-athletes experiencing injuries often go through the five stages of grief, shown by Kubler-Ross. Good has witnessed the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then finally acceptance which are exactly the stages Kubler-Ross describes. For example, if a sprinter strains her hamstring and is not able to compete, that injury can impact her attitude negatively. She may try to deny that she is injured and continue to perform through the pain. Then most likely she will become furious with the doctor when told to stop participating in the sport. She then might attempt to bargain in order to allow herself to participate in some practices or activities relating to that sport and become depressed when that is not permitted. The runner’s response to a setback reveals how not being able to run can negatively affect her mood if she becomes injured.
Michael Aiken was a high school athlete who earned a track scholarship for Charleston Southern University. While at CSU, he competed in the 100M race, 200M race, 400M race along with the respective relays. Two seasons into his college career, in the year of 2010, he decided to medically retire from competing at the collegiate level due to a stress fracture in his spine. In 2017 he accepted the offer of becoming the track coach at Pinewood Preparatory School because “I knew from early on that I enjoyed coaching. I was given the privilege during high school to coach an athlete that made the Special Olympics USA 4x100M relay team. He went on to compete in the Special Olympics World Summer Games, and that really planted the seed of wanting to coach,” Aiken explained. As a head coach, Aiken stated he has seen quite a few young athletes mentally change due to Track and Field. He was able to witness some athletes progress and better themselves by applying their newly found work ethic to other parts of their lives such as academics. According to Aiken, running is able to teach student-athletes the importance of discipline, attitude, and maturity which has helped benefit their mental state along with schooling.
Angel Frank, a former Summerville High School runner who is now a member of the University of South Carolina Track and Field team, explained that, “I struggled with low self-esteem because of my appearance and being introverted a lot during elementary school and largely through middle school.” In fourth grade, she discovered her love of running when she and her childhood friend raced during recess. “Running gave me a sense of confidence,” Frank says, which she lacked in her early years. Now as a freshman at the University of South Carolina, she proudly can say running has “made me feel stronger mentally. I learned how to focus on the positive rather than the negative, especially when it comes to maybe a bad practice or race.”
Tony Bulford, who has been the head cross country coach at Pinewood Preparatory School since 2018 as well as a History teacher and basketball coach for over twenty years, said the benefits of running are not limited to being physically fit, but also forces individuals to learn a type of self-discipline. “It’s very beneficial because it disciplines you for some things in life. When you have a job you may be asked for deadlines and the self-discipline of running helps you stay prepared.” Bulford believes being a runner helps give students a higher advantage in the classroom because as a runner, “they are used to a timed schedule and they have to perform in a timed environment, including when they are tired.” Running allows a student to understand a timed schedule and it benefits both their mental health and academics.
Running not only improves mental health drastically, but the sport also helps keep a person in shape. The aerobic exercise is able to reduce stress, relieve symptoms of depression and help improve blood circulation. Bulford has seen running help many student-athletes improve focus during the school year and turn things in by the deadline. If someone has trouble with sleep, running is able to force the body to become tired which helps with sleep disorders. Although going on a run may seem painful for the first mile or so, running is beneficial for the heart, body, and mind.