There’s plenty of evidence demonstrating how physical activity benefits mental health. Dubbed the ‘wonder drug’ in relation to depression, the release of endorphins associated with exercise has often seen it recommended for stress and anxiety management. Team sports and their social element are shown to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing and to provide a much needed sense of fulfilment. This correlation between exercise and good mental health is commonly accepted. But, now that we’ve incorporated exercise into our lives, how do we manage this in a healthy way? As a rower, who will constantly tell you she’s ‘not a rower’ and who is now also training for a half marathon, I’m trying to figure out how to best handle this myself.

I’ve taken on the challenge of a half marathon (which I’ll continue to complain about before, during and after it takes place thank you very much) in the name of fundraising for Mind. This is a mental health charity which lobbies the government, provides support, and raises awareness in the name of mental health and healthcare. Finding competitive sport took me from obsessive calorie counting, restriction and punishing workouts driven by guilt to, most of the time, treating food as fuel for training and enjoying how this allowed me to achieve better results. Exercise also helped make a dent in anxieties that can otherwise be difficult to manage. It seemed like a natural fit to raise money for mental health through the medium that had helped me get a better handle on my own. Yet, adding marathon training on top of my regular commitments with rowing, a relatively new career path and a reluctance to fully let go of my student social life, could easily spiral into stress detrimental to my wellbeing. So, I’ve been trying to follow some basics in order to ensure training stays a positive influence on me and my mind.

Please note that I am talking about the humdrum everyday mental wellbeing, rather than any health issues that require professional or medical support. Please don’t feel isolated by anything here, if you think what you’re experiencing can’t be addressed by yourself alone this is not a failure on your part and I’d like to direct you away from my ramblings to support hubs like Mind and NHS Choices who are more suitable sources of guidance and help.

Give it a rest

Days off and free evenings are an essential for keeping me feeling grounded. I don’t often skip sessions, but I’ve learnt to understand when I’ve hit a wall and need to take some time out. I’m still learning, but I’m getting a better handle on when a session will snap me out of a negative low energy mood and when it will just be detrimental. The UK Government ran a Sporting Future initiative in December 2015 which saw £8.2m of funding – all with mental wellbeing in mind- which clearly indicates that mental wellbeing is crucial to high performance sport. On this ethos, it makes sense to allow myself (in the position of very-average-athlete) a break when my mindset suggests it is necessary.

Reach out

Openly acknowledging a mental health or emotional issue has been noted as somewhat of a stigma in the world of sport, particularly in those with an emphasis on masculinity. It’s important to differentiate between mental wellbeing and mental resilience. Finding a team that is welcoming and provides an environment where disclosure of these issues is comfortable can begin to negate this. The role of a social group and support through a team is something I have anecdotally noticed increase my performance and attitude to training. Sport England and Mind’s case study of their ‘Get, Set, Go’ campaign in 2014 found success introducing people to mainstream sport through the peer mentoring approach. This suggests that there is a practical role for mentorship and finding a peer group when picking up a sport – and I believe that this can, and should extend to supporting one another’s mental wellbeing. You’re a team and that doesn’t stop when you leave the pitch.

Be realistic

There is no way that I will suddenly become a prodigy of a marathon runner. This is okay. I have never properly committed to long distance running, and the old adage of ‘everyone starts somewhere’ still rings true. I am going to try and remind myself on the run up to race day that beating an arbitrary time is not incredibly important. For a 10k I previously ran, I set myself two targets. One would have required me to run my 5k PB twice over (good luck, Lyd) and the other was simply to finish in under 50 minutes. It felt great to cross the finish line having successfully reached the second, achievable goal. Personally, a bit of realism allows me to enjoy training more – even if I cannot quite shake the unrealistic competitive streak. Instead of piling on the pressure, I can choose to manage this to allow a training session to make a dent in that day’s anxiety, rather than add to it.

Get enough sleep

While sleep coaches (yes, a real thing) claim that everyone has a chronotype which genetically makes you either a morning or a late night person – being a rower forces you to be an early bird, and adding time in the gym or running makes early nights a struggle to find. Moreover, a Springer journal report identified training, travel and competition as the main threats to good sleep in athletes. While this is worth understanding, and it’s useful to identify where extra stressors that can impact sleep may come from, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to squeeze in those recommended hours in bed. Let’s take this moment to acknowledge that I’m not good at getting enough sleep and likely won’t be soon. Have you seen that triangle diagram with each corner labelled ‘work’, ‘social life’ and ‘sleep’ under the heading ‘you can only pick two’? If you add training in there somewhere, sleep is the one that’s dropping of my list. I’m going to try and be better at this, I really am, but realistically I will be too eager to do everything all at once and so Lydia Cronin will remain caffeinated and complaining..

These are the things I will be trying to keep in mind as I add another sport and style of training into my routine. They aren’t universal and they aren’t going to be more effective than professional help where it’s needed, but they are small things I can do for myself to provide the best grounding possible. And they could work for you too.

You can support Lydia and her running endeavors for Mind by donating to her fundraising page here.

Follow Lydia on Twitter: @Lydcatcro

Illustrations: Mo Kerwin