Plus, three mindfulness exercises to try during your next workout

Runners enjoy the sunshine and trails at Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills. (Photo by Kjersti Nelson)

Beautiful, lean people in glossy magazines love to extol the myriad health benefits of running. And therapists commonly suggest their clients consider physical activity as one way to improve their mental health and mood.

But what’s different about Kjersti Nelson’s practice as a marriage & family therapist and running coach is that she sweats — and talks — it out with her clients on the trails.

As a provider of running therapy, Nelson, a Los Altos resident, recently gave a virtual presentation to the Los Altos Hills community about how to build mindfulness into one’s running routine.

While the idea to combine running with formal mental health support has been around for some time — the International Association of Running Therapists was founded in 1980 by a man named Thaddeus Kostrubala — the practice has remained fairly niche, according to a 2018 Outside Magazine story. Although data about this particular type of therapy are limited, the author notes that some research indicates that running side by side with someone can minimize verbal inhibitions, and the activity of running together can build trust between the therapist and client.

Golden sunlight drenches the hills at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino. (Photo by Kjersti Nelson)

In her presentation, Nelson talked about how running offers many benefits, not just for physical health elements like cardiovascular health and muscle and bone strength, but mental health as well. It can help manage anxiety, stress and depression; increase confidence, concentration and motivation; induce creativity and a state of relaxed awareness; and improve sleep, she said.

As a practitioner of running or walking based therapy, she invites her clients to join her in using the outdoors as a setting for therapy. Some of her local favorites include trails in Portola Valley near Windy Hill or Wunderlich Park in Woodside. Anecdotally, she said, she’d felt that people naturally tend to open up and have deep, enriching conversations while they run.

Switching from an office to the trails has been a positive change for her practice, she said. For starters, she no longer has to pay the overhead of subletting an office space for part-time work. As the mother of three, she was already interested in part-time work, and the running works well for that schedule. Doing running therapy full-time would be a lot harder on her body, she noted.

“I think of running as the ultimate self-care practice,” she said. “It’s my ‘me time.’”

Los Altos-based Running Coach and Marriage and Family Therapist Kjersti Nelson. (Photo courtesy of Kjersti Nelson)

The outdoor meeting spaces where she meets her clients are not private, but she says she is sure to inform them that they are in an environment she is not in control of, and there is a possibility that someone else could potentially see them running together or overhear their conversations. But generally, unsuspecting passersby on the trails just see two people talking, not a therapist and a client, so privacy issues haven’t been a problem thus far, she said.

“From a client’s perspective, the benefit is that you feel that forward momentum. Going outside has lots of benefits. Moving impacts the mood,” she said.

It often seems to be easier and more natural for people to meditate out in nature on trails that aren’t too busy than on treadmills, for instance, but you don’t have to go out to the trails to practice mindfulness while running, she said. Earlier this year when shelter-in-place orders were in effect and many trail systems were shut down, she sought out roads that had minimal foot traffic and cul-de-sacs to incorporate into her runs.

When the air quality gets bad, she admitted, sometimes you have to work out indoors and seek alternatives. Yoga makes a good substitute for the meditative elements of running since it already emphasizes mindfulness, she said. And for runners craving the release that comes from intense cardiovascular activity, she recommended HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts.

To do those workouts, here are some video suggestions she offered.

A yoga practice, via Yoga with Adriene:Yoga For Runners – Physical & Mental Stamina | Yoga With AdrieneYoga for Runners – Physical and Mental Stamina is here to support you in both MIND and BODY. This thorough, 20 minute…yogawithadriene.com

And a HIIT home workout via hoypro.com.

While “Running is my Therapy” may be a popular T-shirt slogan, others have pointed out that it’s really not the same thing.

In a November 2019 piece in Trail Runner Magazine, Zoë Rom contends that running is not a treatment for mental health in and of itself, and argued that the way that the running community sometimes tells stories about people overcoming mental illness through running can be problematic. “Stories about people running instead of seeking treatment inadvertently de-legitimize mental illness,” she writes. “If someone said they were signing up for ultras as a means of treating a painful toothache, hopefully, you’d kindly recommend a good dentist.”

“Running can be therapeutic,” she adds. Candles can also be therapeutic. I would highly recommend against going all-in on Anthropologie aromatherapy candles or ultramarathons as a means of treatment for mental illness. There are enormous benefits to exercise and getting outside. Those can be amazing tools for mental wellness, but it’s not the whole toolbox.”

If you are a person that needs medication for mental health as well, Nelson went on, the combination of medication and movement through exercise can be very effective to provide a lasting mood shift.

For those just looking to add some mindfulness to their runs, Nelson has also created an illustrated booklet titled “Running for Mental Health: A How-To Guide” that includes some ideas on how to get started with mindful running.

Runners power uphill at the Dish near Stanford. (Photo by Kjersti Nelson)

While any movement will probably improve one’s mood, running does require a certain level of fitness to sustain. If you’re someone who’s new to running, she pointed to a training regimen that can help you build strength and avoid injuries while you build beyond about 10 miles per week.

People interested in learning more about the topic can read Running Is My Therapy by Scott Douglas, The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal, PhD or Healthy Brain Happy Life by Wendy Suzuki, PhD for more information, she added.

One source, she said, found that pushing one’s workout to about 80% of one’s full cardio level tends to produce more of a mental boost than below that.

Think of it like baking bread, she said. You can have all the right ingredients to make the bread — flour, water, salt, yeast — and, when mixed, the dough will rise to some degree. But you really need heat to bring about the transformation from dough into bread. Incorporating some level of higher-intensity cardio exercise can provide that “heat” needed to improve your mood, she said.

Mindful running exercises to try

  1. Schedule a ‘worry.’

Right now, there are a lot of things that are beyond our control, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking about them all the time, Nelson said. And if you tell yourself not to think about it, well, you’ll just think about it more. For instance, say you’re worried about your aging parents’ health. Commit to spend some time during your next solo run (or walk) to think deeply about this concern. As you move forward one step at a time, you’ll be giving yourself uninterrupted time and space for contemplation.

2. Try out a breathing pattern.

Nelson recommends adopting a breathing pattern focused on helping you relax as you run. One way is to breathe with your natural running cadence in a two-count inhale, followed by a three-count exhale. Runners starting out tend to over-inhale, and focusing on lengthening your exhalations can keep your nervous system relaxed, she said. Inhale: One-two, then exhale: one-two-three and repeat.

3. Pick a mantra.

Whenever you need extra motivation or want to push yourself harder, pick a mantra — a short, affirmative thought — to repeat with your cadence boost your endurance. A few examples are: “One foot in front of the other,” “This is what growth feels like,” or “strong and free.”

Mental Health Resources

Anyone who is experiencing depression or heightened anxiety because of the public health crisis can find help through local resources.

• If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately.

In Santa Clara County:

• 24/7 Behavioral Health Services Department Call Center: 800–704–0900.

• Crisis Text Line: Text RENEW to 741741.

• 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 855–278–4204.

In San Mateo County:

• Behavioral Health Services & Resources — 24/7 Access Call Center — Toll-free number: 800–686–0101 | For the hearing impaired: 800–943–2833.

For seniors or people with disabilities:

The Institute on Aging has a Friendship Line for people ages 60 and older and adults with disabilities who feel isolated: 800–971–0016.

For youth:

A list of local resources for young people who need mental health support, as well as their family and friends, can be found here.

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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