Running, mental health and me

Physiotherapist Rhian Bowden shares her 3-decade relationship with running and why she believes everyone should run.

Since my teens, running has always been a constant in my life. Something I can rely on to instantly make me feel good. My relationship with running has changed and evolved over 3 decades and I wanted to share my personal story to encourage more people to take up running. For me, running is so much more than a way to get fit or lose weight; it is an essential life skill that has kept us safe for millions of years and has a significant role to play in both our physical and mental health.

The reason I took up running in the first place was to lose weight. Like many body conscious teenagers, I scrutinized my figure and thought I was overweight. I ran to ‘burn off’ the piece of cake or chocolate bar I had eaten. It was a cheap and uncomplicated way to exercise, all I needed was a pair of trainers. After a few months, I noticed that running gave me so much more than a slimmer waistline; it made me feel good too. So, I just kept running.

My relationship with running had evolved. Instead of it feeling like a chore and hating every minute (I must run to look a certain way) which came from a lack of confidence and self-esteem and a deep longing to feel attractive and accepted by the world. It turned into a friendship. Running boosted my confidence and my self-esteem. It gave me that inner strength to face my fears and be brave. It became my ‘go to’ when I needed a boost, just like a good friend.

In my twenties, running taught me that pain and discomfort were temporary and if I pushed through that discomfort, I would be rewarded for the effort and hard work. It helped me to be more resilient and enabled me to challenge myself in my personal life and my career. This newfound confidence gave me the courage to backpack around the World, run the New York marathon, and set up my own business aged 26. My relationship with running was solid and it continued to strengthen into my thirties.

This was the decade where I fell apart, I was broken. Life had been overwhelmingly challenging with several stressful life events happening all at the same time. A new baby, a new home, divorce and relocating my business, all within a few months of each other. My eldest child was only 18 months old when his brother was born; it was incredibly hard to single-handedly take care of them both and run a business whilst going through a divorce. During these challenging years, running was a coping strategy for my mental health. It was my outlet for releasing stress, anger and grief and it gave me a moment of peace where I could just be me with no responsibility. During this time, running was my therapy.

At this stage of my life, I felt worthless. Running helped me to build my confidence and self-esteem and it gave me a focus outside of family and work commitments. Even though I had extremely limited time to train, running only once or twice per week; signing up to run events gave me a goal to work towards which focused my mind on something positive. I ran the London marathon on minimal training; I did not care about my time, only completion. Getting over that line with my two sons watching was a proud moment for me. I wanted to be a positive role model for them and prove to myself I could do it. Through pushing myself out of my comfort zone, it gave me back my confidence and created an inner strength and resilience to cope with all of life’s challenges.

Running has also played a significant role in my relationships. I have met some incredible people and made life-long friends through running. The support and camaraderie you feel when running together and achieving your goal is something special, a moment of unity and connection. For me, this connection has created strong bonds and friendships over the years.

There is nothing more uplifting than another person encouraging you to achieve and cheering you on; whether they are your training partner, a fellow runner, or a volunteer/spectator at an event. This is why I love running events, it brings out the best in humanity. Where else do you find people of all ages, abilities, backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions coming together and cheering one another on? If only our everyday life was like this!

Even though I am not a member of a running club, I still feel part of this special community. We wish each other ‘good morning’ when out for our early runs, we share words of encouragement at running events and sometimes end up running together even though we have not met before. It is such a friendly supportive community; one I am proud to be part of.

It is through this community that I have been blessed to work with countless runners and triathletes at my physiotherapy clinic over the years and been involved in local running and triathlon events. One of those athletes being 2 x World Champion, 3 x Olympian Helen Jenkins. It was Helen who recommended me as a physio for a British Triathlon training camp in Portugal in 2015 where I met my husband Adam Bowden who was one of the athletes on camp. So, I guess in some way, I found love through running.

Having a shared passion for running strengthens our connection. We may have a different relationship with running; Adam being an Elite athlete and me a recreational runner, but it still unites us. Having a shared interest allows us to understand each other better and share experiences together through training and running events. It also unites us as a family with our boys getting involved too.

Both Adam and I try to be positive role models for our boys, teaching them about health and fitness and encouraging them to be active. We believe it is essential for their physical development and mental wellbeing and try to lead by example.

Being fit and active has enabled me to experience wonderful moments with my boys. Playing football, tag, wrestling, swimming, water slides, high ropes, diving, coasteering… to name just a few. These moments are precious; memories to last a lifetime. I did not appreciate how important my physical health was until it was taken away from me.

When I turned 40, I became very unwell with an autoimmune condition called Graves’ Disease. My thyroid gland produced too many hormones which caused weight loss, palpitations, fatigue, anxiety, low mood, heat sensitivity and bulging eyes. Movement was an effort; I would get out of breath just walking upstairs and feel faint when moving quickly. I even collapsed at a British Triathlon awards ceremony in front of all the staff and Olympic athletes which was really embarrassing.

For the first time in my life, I was unable to do the things I wanted to do, my body was incapable of it. This had a massive impact on me and my family as we all love the outdoors and being active; now I was restricted in what I could do. I remember sitting in the car watching Adam and the boys play football on the beach as tears rolled down my face. It broke my heart not to experience that fun moment with them.

During this time, I grieved running and the life I used to live. I had lost my good friend who always made me feel better after a stressful day. I felt depressed, helpless, and vulnerable. It was during this time I noticed that running meant so much more to me than a way to lose weight, feel good or de-stress. It made me feel safe, empowered, and gave me a sense of security.

Reflecting on the reasons why running made me feel safe and empowered, I realised it was because it’s one of our basic survival skills. For millions of years, humans have survived because of our in-built survival mechanism of ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ so having the ability to do all three will subconsciously make you feel safer in this world. I may never have felt capable of ‘fighting’ when in danger, but I knew I had the ability to run. When I lost my ability to run, ‘freezing’ became my only option and this made me feel vulnerable.

Experiencing the fear and vulnerability of limited physical ability gave me the motivation to get well. I channeled these strong emotions into an overwhelming determination to find a solution to my malfunctioning immune system and I succeeded. My good health had returned, I just had the arduous task of getting strong and fit again.

This took several years to do. Like most people, I tried to pick up where I left off without considering how much muscle strength I had lost during the 18 months off exercise. I managed to slowly build my running up to 10km without doing any strength training which was very silly of me considering my profession. As a result, my knees became painful and swollen which forced me to stop running again. I was making my come back after my Graves’ Disease and now my knees were failing me.

Still determined to live a full active life, I went on a mission to build strength in my muscles to enable me to run again. Even though I don’t enjoy lifting weights, I knew I had to do it to create a strong resilient body that can tolerate load and the impact of running. Through adding strength training into my weekly routine, I was able to get myself back running half marathons. I now respect my body so much more and give it what it needs rather than what I want.

I am so grateful for what running has taught me about myself, the confidence and resilience it has given me, the friendships I have made along the way and the fond memories to treasure. For as long as my body allows, I will just keep running and I hope my story inspires others to take up running too.



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