As any avid runner will tell you, there’s no better medicine for a crappy week than logging a few miles. (Preferably with a really good playlist.) But it turns out there might be an even more healing way to take advantage of your asphalt-pounding time—one that doesn’t involve earbuds and Drake on repeat.
A growing number of mental health pros are starting to offer therapy sessions conducted while running outdoors. In a way, it’s an obvious pairing, given that so much research links nature and moderate exercise to improvements in mood, self-esteem, and stress levels.
“For people who are stuck, a moving therapy can help them get a sense that they’re creating real change."
Plus, the symbolism of physically moving forward during a therapy session can often resonate more than sitting in a room discussing your feelings. “For people who are stuck, a moving therapy can help them get a sense that they’re creating real change,” says William Pullen, a London-based psychotherapist, founder of Dynamic Running Therapy, and author of the forthcoming Running With Mindfulness. “Being outside and making a commitment to get from point A to point B—and doing so with somebody who’s helping you get there—is a very different experience from going to an office where a therapist is sat there and you wonder, What’s he or she really thinking about?"
As of right now, there are still relatively few practitioners who’ve taken to this form of sweaty psychoanalysis. (Walk-and-talk therapy's much more common.) But Pullen predicts that these ranks are going to grow rapidly as word gets out about the practice’s benefits. “That model of Jung sitting in his apartment listening to people free associate while they lie on a couch is very outdated now," he says. "[Movement] profoundly shifts our understanding of ourselves and our experience in the world. So why not use it?"
Not to mention that, in this era of mental health realness, it was only a matter of time before people started taking their counseling sessions to the streets.
So, is running therapy right for you? Here's what you need to know—plus, deets on what you can expect during a session.
Who should try run therapy?
To find out more about the discipline, I laced up my Mizunos and headed to Redondo Beach, CA for an oceanfront jog with LA’s preeminent run therapist: Sepideh Saremi, LCSW, of Run Walk Talk. I’m not crazy about running, but she reassured me that she works with people of all athletic abilities, from ex-track stars to those who prefer a power-walk pace.
This type of therapy, she says, can be beneficial for anyone, but that it’s particularly effective for those who are freaked out by the idea of spilling their guts to a stranger. “It’s not a natural thing for a lot of people,” she explains. “When you’re talking about things that are very difficult, being side-by-side [as opposed to facing your therapist] makes it easier to engage in the process.”
"When you’re running and something’s going on in your life, it can become incredibly emotional in a way that can surprise you."
She adds that in her practice, those who are most attracted to run therapy tend to be overachievers—competitive folks with a self-critical streak and an aversion to R&R—and that running can provide valuable insight into their tendencies. “Running together helps uncover these patterns and starts to shift them,” she says. “It shows people that being more gentle with yourself can actually improve your performance—in running and in life.”
That said, it's not for everyone. Pullen warns that those with eating disorders or addictive personalities might not be the best candidates for run therapy, and the same goes for those who are dealing with major crises. "When you’re running and something’s going on in your life, it can become incredibly emotional in a way that can surprise you," he says. "For some people, it may be too much, too quickly."
What’s running therapy like?
To be clear, my meeting with Saremi wasn’t supposed to be an actual therapy session, but I did end up getting a hint of what such an appointment would be like.
As we walked down to the beach, Saremi asked what pace I’d feel comfortable with—as she does with all of her clients—and I immediately started ranting about how much I dislike running, how I’m really bad at it, and how I would probably be winded within five minutes.
But then, a funny thing happened: As we trotted along the bike path at a more leisurely speed than I'm used to, I found that I wasn't tiring at all. In fact, I was actually enjoying myself. Is this what that whole runner’s high thing is all about?
"Using your body to understand your life—and not in a punishing or guilt-inducing way—can be very powerful."
As we continued to chat, I realized I usually run with people who are faster than me. As such, I always feel like I need to push myself extra hard to keep up, leaving me feeling totally exhausted and inferior at the end. “Would you say that’s also how you approach your life?” Saremi asked me. Well, come to think of it, that’s exactly how I operate—striving to meet other people’s expectations while not really paying attention to my own needs. No wonder I feel perpetually drained and vaguely out of alignment.
I was a bit surprised by my spontaneous a-ha moment, but Saremi claims that it's not uncommon. “The running therapy session is a helpful metaphor,” she says. “Using your body to understand your life—and not in a punishing or guilt-inducing way—can be very powerful." Plus, our run felt like a hang-out with a friend. That probably made me feel more comfortable opening up than I would have if I were sitting across from Saremi in a windowless office.
Not only did I leave with a newfound realization about myself—one that I’ve never been able to unearth in a traditional therapy session—but I also acquired a new perspective on running. In fact, I’m preparing for a laid-back evening jog as I type this. I may not be breaking a 10-minute mile, but I can feel the endorphins kicking in already.
Another way to shake up your summer running schedule: gather your friends and go for a sunset jog. And if you're looking for new therapy ideas, perhaps take a page from Katy Perry and livestream yours?
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