It’s no secret that the holiday season often brings on a downward spiral of stress and fatigue. You might notice that you feel exhausted or frazzled as you pass by hundreds of Christmas cards and plastic-wrapped gift sets at the mall, or maybe you find yourself a little more easily angered now that the season of pumpkin spice lattes and beautiful fall colors have passed their prime. To make matters worse, it’s getting harder and harder to fit in your daily run or workout amidst all the hustle and bustle as the new year approaches. Regardless of how stress rears its ugly head in your own life, this holiday season is a great time to get back on track with your running program. It’s not just for weight loss and heart health: running has been shown to be a potent stress-buster and mood-lifter and might be just what you need to keep a level head over the winter and beyond. Here are a few ways to use running as therapy to decrease stress and keep your mental health in check during the tense holiday season.
Little By Little
You’re probably familiar with “runner’s high”, a term used to describe a euphoric feeling that exercisers often experience during periods of moderate- to high-intensity exercise. While there are several theories as to which neurotransmitters are actually responsible for creating a “runner’s high”, there’s no question that you’ll feel more powerful, optimistic, and full of energy on the days you choose to go for a run. Stress can wreak havoc on your energy levels and cognitive function, but research has shown that hitting the pavement for as little as ten minutes can kick stress and moodiness to the curb and boost your energy levels for the rest of the day (Hansen, Stevens, & Coast, 2001). Even if you think you’d rather stay inside wrapped in a blanket than lace up your sneakers for a quick three-miler, remember how you good always feel once your cool-down starts and it’s time to head home: it’s always worth it.
Find A Rhythm
Creating a new positive habit or reinforcing an old one can work wonders on your mental health by helping you mark each day as a success. Making a point of sticking to regularly scheduled runs during your week, even if they’re short, will help you feel a sense of accomplishment as you go to bed each night. That sense of accomplishment will encourage and motivate you each day and soon you’ll have a healthy habit to keep you on the move and feeling optimistic even through stressful moments this holiday season. Plus, it’s a few minutes that you can take for yourself, with no phone calls and no emails, during a time usually crammed full of caring for family, friends, and co-workers. Write your scheduled runs in your daybook or calendar so you have a solid reminder to take care of yourself and your needs, and let friends and family know how important it is that you stick to your plan.
Have A Sense Of Purpose
Setting and achieving goals can be therapeutic too. A good goal doesn’t have to be lofty; its purpose here is to give you a focal point when the season around you seems blurry and unfocused. Is there an area of town you haven’t explored yet? Your goal could be to do at least one new running route each week. Are you skimping out on speed work? Make a point of scheduling fartlek sessions into your plan. As you pass these small milestones you’ve made for yourself, your sense of success and accomplishment will soar.
Sprint To The Finish
If you’re finding it hard to fit your runs into your busy holiday schedule, sprint training might be an option for you. Adding some high-intensity sprints to your running program allows you to shorten your running time, plus get an added boost in cardiovascular and muscular endurance. In addition, sprint training has been linked to an increase in memory and cognitive function (Praag, 2008), two qualities that tend to fall by the wayside while juggling the holiday season’s demands. When you feel pressed for time, try implementing a session of interval, or fartlek, training: periods of light jogging interspersed with short, all-out sprints. A typical session might consist of two minutes of light jogging with thirty seconds of sprinting and repeating five to ten times. What used to be a light hour-long run can be easily shortened to 15 or 20 minutes while still keeping your heart and lungs fit and strong and your head clear and focused. Even adding just one sprint session a week will make you feel like you have more time to accomplish your holiday chores.
Get Some Fresh Air
As the new year approaches, the days get shorter and shorter until it seems like the sun has completely disappeared! You might find yourself getting a little bummed out from all the darkness, and there’s a reason: no exposure to sunshine means you produce a lot less vitamin D, a micronutrient that’s been connected to seasonal affective disorder and winter moodiness (Kerr, et al., 2015). Getting a run in during a sunrise or sunset can boost your vitamin D production and fend off those seasonal mental funks you might find yourself in. If you’re cooped up in your home or office building all day, getting a blast of fresh air, even if it’s cold, can help you recharge and stay productive through your work day. If you can fit a run in over your lunch break when the sun is at its highest, you’ll find yourself ready to take on the rest of the day with a whole new outlook. You might even be able to convince a few co-workers to go for a dash with you for a casual, stress-free social event.
Get A Running Buddy
Ask a friend, family member, or co-worker if they’d like to do a few runs with you. Our interactions with others during the holiday season tend to be task-oriented and attached to demands or requests. Getting a running buddy gives you a chance to have some social interaction in a casual, friendly setting while still fitting your run into your day. Talking together about the things you are looking forward to over the holidays this year can revive your positive mindset, plus the added company gives you some accountability to keep your running habit in high gear when things get stressful. You might even be able to find a local running club to run with a larger group for the same benefits.
Even though the holidays bring stress and frustration on each year, it’s easy to use your running habit to your advantage as a way to lower your stress levels and elevate your mental health. Implementing just one of these tips can make drastic changes in your productivity and will add a sense of accomplishment and relief to boost you forward into another successful training season.
van Praag, H. Neuromol Med (2008) 10: 128. doi:10.1007/s12017-008-8028-z