Charles Allen: When does running turn into being bad for our health?

Running can be good for your mental health... but there needs to be a balance, says Charles Allen. P

Running can be good for your mental health... but there needs to be a balance, says Charles Allen. Picture: Archant - Credit: Nick Butcher

Running has always been seen as a great stress reliever and of huge benefit to our mental health.

But when is the tipping point where it stops doing this and has the reverse effect?

Some runners, in pursuit of contentment, will ignore the warning signs of injury and continue to train, placing their short, and long-term, health in jeopardy.

I like to think that we live in an enlightened age where we are, at last, starting to discuss our mental health.

Obviously, there is a long way to go and many services and groups are playing catch up as the extent of this problem is revealed throughout society.

Surely we all have times when we find things just a little too difficult, and this is nothing to be ashamed of.

As someone who both works in the local running community and is a former NHS employee, I am trained to see the signs of certain mental health conditions. Never to provide an intervention however, but able to sign post individuals in need to those who are qualified to help.

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In a recent review of the subject of mental health, in order to make sure I was up to date with both research and social feeling I took a look at the material available on the website of the charity MIND.

One area of their site discusses the subject of self-harm, stating: "Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm". Common reasons include a wide range of issues, including pressures at school or work, bullying, financial concerns, all forms of abuse, bereavement, confusion about your sexuality, relationship issues, and unemployment.

MIND continues to explain that, "self-harm can be a response to any situation or pressure with the potential to impact on someone."

Individuals can find that they are more likely to self harm in association with other actions, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs, or that specific times (night time for example).

Self-harm can also be seen as attention seeking, with the individual affected made to feel judged and alienated. To have your behaviour misunderstood in this way is both painful and a further source of stress. Not a helpful response at all, as we all deserve to be treated with respect whilst having our distress acknowledged and taken seriously.

Reading the information from MIND made me question whether people who continually run whilst in pain and injured are in fact just acting out a new form of self-harm.

As a specialist in health sciences with a history of working with long term conditions I do often wonder why someone will pay for my advice but at some stages choose to ignore it, especially if it means they are putting their health at risk with potential further damage to their body.

If a vulnerable individual takes to Facebook to say that they were about to physically harm themselves we would, surely, be mortified.

We would naturally try to prevent and discourage them from doing this. So why is it when running buddies and colleagues take to a marathon with a clearly debilitating injury many of us applaud and even encourage this. Just take a look at some of the posts by runners and the responses from their peers on social media to see for yourself what I am highlighting.

It is not the same in top-flight teams. Obviously, if you are running at the top end there is less margin for error, so any injury is considered to be a major factor in restricting the exercise regime someone has.

Such an approach however does not seem to be shared by running clubs with a more social focus. Here it seems to be that everyone, from all backgrounds, feels able to advise others to "go for it", or, even worse, feel that the experience they have had of having a bad knee for example, qualifies them to tell others to just "strap it".

Such advice is, of course, meant to be positive. I know the majority do it out of the kindest of drivers, but we need to consider what is happening more carefully.

We might be missing a potentially serious injury or enabling an individual to inflict lasting harm upon themselves, even if the payback isn't realised for another 20 years.

A run can help to relieve stress and pressure. The fact is we can use running as an excellent way to improve our mental health for most of our lives but, we need to be aware that at some points it will be physically harder.

At these times we need to extend our repertoire of stress relieving strategies, not only to prevent deterioration in our mental health, but in our long term physical health too.

You're not alone

You can contact the MIND infoline on 0300 123 3393 or by texting 86463.

Alternatively for a listening ear or just someone to talk to the Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call them on 116 123 or email

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