Road to hope: Running to boost your mental health

Running isn’t just good for physical fitness, it also helps to combat the ill effects of anxiety and depression, says Clodagh Finn

Gardiner with their 2015 Dublin Marathon medals. Both are mothers and run marketing businesses. Picture: Shane Cowley

WHEN Sarah Gardiner feels anxious or depressed, she knows what to do. She downs tools, laces up her runners and heads out to see her loyal counsellor — the road.

Putting one foot in front of the other in the open air gives her the time and space to work through whatever is bothering her. “The road really is my counsellor,” she says. “It’s great for anxiety and depression.”

In October, she will run three marathons — in Cologne, Amsterdam and Dublin — in one month to increase awareness around mental health issues and to raise money for SoSad, a suicide-prevention charity.

Her own experience of anxiety began as a child — “growing up, I was quite anxious, clingy and shy” — but it was only last year that she was finally diagnosed with anxiety and depression. She had a bout of what she now knows to call depression in her 20s, but shrugged it off and battled on.

In 2016, however, it returned. She had a lot of physical ailments, including a chest infection she couldn’t shake, and felt relieved when she had to spend days in bed. When her GP suggested that she might be suffering from depression, the penny dropped.

“It was the start of getting better for me,” she tells Feelgood. “I broke down in tears and I realised that was what I was dealing with.” She was prescribed anti-depressants and began to see a cognitive behavioural therapist. Gradually, things improved.

Running was always there in the background. Sarah had already completed three marathons and with her friend Denise Fay was training for her fourth Dublin marathon.

The two Louth-based women had a lot in common — they were both mothers and they both ran their own marketing businesses. Denise runs Achieve Marketing and is a mother of two, (Luke is seven and Isabel is four) while Sarah runs Blue Duck Marketing and is mother to Liam (five).

Both women also share a deeply felt belief that running has huge benefits.

Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise — and in particular brisk walking or running — can reduce the symptoms of depression and alleviate anxiety. For example, one US study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise , found even a single run — or 30 minutes’ brisk walking on the treadmill — can instantly lift the mood of someone suffering from depression.

Running has also been shown to sharpen memory, improve sleep and protect the brain from ageing, to mention just some of its many benefits.

Sarah Gardiner and Denise Fay would add increased self-belief and a remarkable sense of camaraderie to that list.


Denise, who is doing the New York marathon in aid of cystic fibrosis later this year, says that running is like anything else; it’s about taking that first step and believing in yourself.

“Many of us don’t give ourselves permission to believe in ourselves. We listen to others and sometimes/often let their limitations affect us. Fear of what the 1% might say often stops us.

“It’s the same in business, in life, in running, in dating, in cooking, in parenting. It’s all about belief.

“You don’t have to run a marathon — you just have to take the first step and believe.”

She hopes her training for New York, her sixth marathon, will inspire other women to achieve their goals this year: “I want to inspire women to take action and achieve something they’ve always wanted to do: start a business, go from couch to 5k, talk on camera, ask a boy out, cheer on another person...”

Denise is aiming to do the marathon inside four-and-a-half hours while Sarah would be happy to complete hers in six hours.

“I am an accidental marathon runner,” Sarah explains. “I go out to run it and I’m just happy not to die on the course! I am going out there to show that it is possible. If somebody looked at me in the street, they would never think I was a marathon runner. If I can get off my butt and muster the psychological strength to do a marathon, anybody can. Nothing in life is impossible.”

She didn’t feel that last year when she was forced to abandon training for the Dublin marathon. She fractured a toe and was put out of action. It really set her back. Her therapist had emigrated and she sought help from SoSad, a charity established by Peter Moroney after his son died by suicide.

Sarah can’t say enough for the charity and how its free counselling service helped her to cope.

“The charity does not receive any government funding, but it is doing life-saving work. There are six branches around the country and around 200 people a week, in Drogheda alone, are receiving counselling,” she says.

She wanted to give something back and the funds raised during her ‘Three marathons, three countries, one month’ challenge will go to SoSad (Save our sons and daughters).


She also hopes to raise awareness of mental health issues.

When she fractured her toe during training, she posted her misfortune on Facebook and got a huge outpouring of digital sympathy in thumbs-up and supportive comments.

She wonders if she had posted that she was in bed for three days with a bout of depression, how that news might be received.

Ironically, though, Sarah has turned to Facebook as part of her campaign to show others that anxiety and depression are very common conditions and that there are ways of coping. She has posted a series of short videos in which she talks with searing honesty about the reality of the bad as well as the good times.

In a particularly moving piece, she talks about finding strength in vulnerability and the benefits of opening up and talking about it.

“I’ve had amazing feedback. The only way I can do this is to be honest. The strength in vulnerability video resonates hugely with people. This chatterbox bubbly person who runs her own successful business is showing that things aren’t always easy.”

Her posts continue to get an overwhelmingly positive response on Facebook and she is now feeling very well. “I have my days and I am still on medication but I’m in a really good place and I know my triggers. It’s about managing how I react to a situation. It’s about allowing myself to love myself and to cut myself some slack.”

She is also back running thanks to former international athlete David Carrie who is something of a guru around Co Louth and beyond. And both women have taken his mantra to heart: “I can and I will.”

“There is no such thing as ‘I can’t’,” he says. “Anyone can do a marathon if they do the training. I have seen people on the first night stop after 200m or 300m, bend down and put their hands on their knees. They go on to complete a marathon.”

He set up Team Carrie Marathon Runners Ireland in Dunleer, Co Louth, in 2010 because, after a career in sport, he wanted to give something back. He saw that completing a marathon was on a lot of people’s bucket lists and he wanted to help them to achieve that goal.

He developed a 22-week training programme for all levels of ability. If you follow it, he says, you’ll get over the finish line.

In 2014, 154 runners from Team Carrie did just that. The community group is now the biggest marathon-training hub in the country.

THERE’S more. In seven years, Team Carrie has raised more than €300,000 for charity.

“It’s a win-win,” says David. “The benefits of running are also huge. Running gives you a sense of wellbeing. I have seen the confidence it gives people in other areas of their lives. If you run a marathon, you have proven that you are capable of anything and you can bring that sense of focus and drive into other areas of your life.”

Martin Rogan, CEO of the Mental Health Association, has also seen the immense mental-health benefits of endorphin or happy-hormone boosting exercise.

He advises people to run in the morning, as exposure to the sunlight helps regulate the body clock and ensure a good night’s sleep. If you are travelling, running in the morning is also a great way to reset the body clock.

He also says it is best to run out in the open, in green or blue (by sea, river or lakes) spaces to limit the negative effect of traffic fumes. Check that the foliage where you are running goes down to the ground as that means the air quality is good. A lack of greenery at ground level is a sign of pollution.

Try not to run alone either, he adds. In fact, says Denise Fay, running with others is key to the success of Team Carrie. There is a remarkable bond between members of the team.

“The camaraderie is key. We talk about everything on the runs. Some of the runs could be like Sex and the City... except swap out the cocktails for the runners,” she says

Whatever you do, adds her running buddy Sarah Gardiner, give it a try: “Push yourself out of your comfort zone. If fear is the only thing holding you back, sign up you will not regret doing it.”


How running helps me cope with anxiety and depression

  • It releases happy chemicals. It’s a well-known fact that exercise releases endorphins so a run is a must if you’re feeling down.
  • It improves self-confidence. Completing training goals, races and marathons is a massive confidence boost. If you can run a marathon you can do anything.
  • It helps relaxation.  After a good run, once your head hits the pillow you’ll be out like a light. A cure for that night-time thinking.  
  • It increases productivity. Getting motivated by running should lead to motivation in other areas of your life, such as at home and at work.
  • Expect an improved social life. Training with a club gives you somewhere to be, people to train with and new friends to meet.
  • Running inspires others. The ultimate confidence boost is feeling that you are helping others, whether it’s being there for your training buddy or helping someone else get off the couch.
  • It helps you to enjoy the outdoors. There’s so much beauty out there ... get out in any weather and enjoy it.

— Sarah Gardiner 

To see her videos on coping with anxiety and depression, click here.


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