How to Make Sure Your Running Relieves Stress (instead of making it worse!)

Four blog posts ago I started this series on running and stress by sharing a stress-reducing “orienting” exercise that involves simply looking around and allowing your senses to work together. That might seem so simple it’s almost stupid until you check how you’re using your eyes at various points during the day. I bet for many hours they’re focused on a screen closer than arms’ length, either straight in front of you or downwards.

But more importantly, even when you’re not looking at a screen you’ll find surprisingly often that you still aren’t really looking at much of anything. As you move through familiar spaces you may catch yourself with your eyes locked in a focus a fixed distance, not moving around or really seeing anything clearly. Your mind goes round and round and your eyes don’t focus.

I believe one of the really stress-reducing effects of running is that it encourages you to change your focus. Literally. I can mark the first involuntary glance towards a bird I hear singing as the moment my stress level drops on a run or even a walk. If that doesn’t happen, then all that’s gone on is that my legs have churned to match the churning of my mind, and then after a while they stopped and it was just my mind again.

I have a wonderful ballet teacher to thank for first helping me to realize that I wasn’t really using my eyes most of the time. Before class one day (more than twenty years ago, if you must know) she asked me “do you wear contacts?” Of course I did (and do) and it seemed pretty uncanny to me that she could have figured that out. She said, “I thought so. You probably got out of the habit of seeing things when your vision started to change, so you stopped looking. But it’s affecting your dancing.” And then for the rest of the class she repeatedly stepped in front of me (dodging flying legs when necessary), looked me in the eyes, and called out, “Hello! Can you see me?”

Thank you Marjorie Mussman. Every time she popped up in my field of vision that day it took me a moment to focus my eyes on her. I realized I hadn’t been looking at anything, but just pointing my eyes in the general direction my face pointed and getting a vague impression of what was going on around me to avoid collisions. I had taken it for granted up till that point in my life that if my eyes were open, I was seeing. Especially if I had my contacts in.

That experience immediately made me a better dancer, because not only was I a more interesting, expressive, and communicative performer when I actually used my eyes to see, I also organized my body better in space and gravity. My muscle tone was more appropriate, my rhythm was better, and my technique improved.

As a runner I also find a profound and powerful connection between how well my diaphragm works and how well and freely I see. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: there is so much more to be said about running, breathing, and seeing. But I’m going to resist that temptation today and return to the value of slowing down that we looked at in the last blog post.

I run slower now, and walk slower, and even like to cycle really upright and thus slower than in my Evel Knieval cycle-commuting phase because I can freely look around. It is a pleasure. I’ve explained in the past how to look around when you run, and it works just fine fast—if it didn’t, sports like football/soccer would be much more boring! But in general you can see farther and look more freely when you are upright.

If you don’t turn your shoulders and you have good neck mobility, you can turn your head about 90 degrees. That’s it. You can’t see anything behind you except in your peripheral vision. However if you also turn your shoulders and move other parts of yourself as well, you can potentially see more than 360 degrees. (If you don’t know what I mean or can’t see that far, learn how here. Your “core action” is connected to how you look around to see behind you.)

Now when you are running with focus (ha!), meaning at a moderate to fast pace for you, it is a serious interruption in rhythm to turn your shoulders along with your head to look behind you. That’s why it’s a big deal when runners do it in a race. It costs you.

However the more leisurely and therefore upright you are, the less disruptive it is to turn your shoulders and even more of your body along with your head. When walking you can turn to look behind yourself easily, and your body will move around as you do this, allowing you to respond to what you see or keep moving forward as you return your focus to the direction you’re going.

In fact, this shift of weight is built in to looking widely around ourselves. You can see the farthest when you look around in such a fashion that your weight shifts towards the side of the body you’re looking towards. This allows us to move towards the thing we’re looking for or away from the danger we’ve spotted. It’s a state of organization that makes us highly responsive to the world around us. And that makes us feel more relaxed because we know we are safer and more able to get what we want and need.

In contrast, a fixed focus makes you feel vulnerable and anxious on an animal level. A while back, MovNat founder Erwan le Corre mentioned in an interview with Daniel Vitalis that he felt one of the stressful things about long work on a computer was the fixed, narrow focus forward, going for hours without looking behind yourself or around. The animal in you knows this makes you very vulnerable, and your cortisol levels rise. I haven’t been able to discover whether anyone has studied this particular effect, but it could well be among the multitude of stressful effects of using information technology.

So we come full circle now to wrap up this series of blog posts on stress for runners. Whether you’re stressed from your life and looking for stress relief in your running, or whether you’re trying to determine if running in fact is itself a stressor for you right now, consider how you look and what you can see.

The screens in your life take a high toll posturally, emotionally, and visually. Running can give you relief, but on the other hand it can also actually be a stressor itself if you run with a narrow forward focus because you’re running too fast too often or because it never occurred to you to look around and see. You give yourself real relief from stress when you do activities—including running at lower intensity—that include looking around easily and comfortably.

If you want to stop more and smell the roses, it helps to see where the roses are. Make sure you give yourself that chance often enough.

2 thoughts on “How to Make Sure Your Running Relieves Stress (instead of making it worse!)”

  1. Wow very interesting.
    Not only did I get completely stresses from my last racing training plan but also from my job. I look at a computer screen almost nonstop and I notice that I get grumpier through the week. I thought running was my release but it’s not always the case and I couldn’t figure out why.
    I injured my knee three months ago and have been running slowly and just trying to enjoy my attempts to get back into running 3, 4, 5 miles no matter my pace. I do stop if needed and it feels so relaxing. I may stop racing this year to get back the enjoyment and then play it by ear. I just want to be able to run confortably and for a long time. Thank you for this insight to look around. I do look at the sky and trees and things when I’m cruising and comfortable. But I’m not sure that I’m focusing.

    • Glad it’s helpful, Laura. When you’re cruising, the question is less about whether you’re focussing — you don’t want to be working too hard on seeing — but whether you let yourself take in the world, take in what you’re seeing. I say take the time to enjoy your running, you’ll be so glad you did.


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