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Running & Youth Mental Health


As a teenager, nothing scared me more than the idea of doing Cross Country. It happened once a year, and always coincided with a sick day for me – I would make up any excuse to get out of having to run around the fields for what seemed like an eternity. The times I did take part I often came last, which was dispiriting and embarrassing as all the other members of the class clapped you across the line. It was a shame, because the ability to run was always in me, and now having completed six marathons and several other races I wish I had been pushed to try harder and participate more. There was always an element of ‘if you’re not in the teams, you don’t need to bother’, so those who didn’t necessarily excel at team sports weren’t encouraged in the same way. 

 

My best friend Laura is a teacher at a school in Leeds, and she also runs the Cross-Country running club there as part of her many extra-curricular activities. She has always spoken so highly of the children she coaches, and I know she finds it to be one of the most rewarding parts of her teaching career so far. I wanted to know whether things have changed to be more inclusive to those who aren’t at the top level, and how she feels running as part of a club enhances the senior school experience for so many. Laura has spoken in the past about how running has helped her keep her mental health in check, and I wondered whether the same could be applied to the people in her running club. Here’s what she had to say.

Mental health is more important than ever right now, how do you think the pandemic has affected young people?

Unfortunately, I think the pandemic has had a significant effect on young people's mental health. The uncertainty, lack of routine, disruption to education and fewer opportunities to socialise in person with their friends has certainly led to a rise in anxiety and low mood amongst young people. Some children have had additional challenges to face in the pandemic, such as bereavement – and, of course, there are the children for whom home is not always a safe and happy place. Conversely, there are some children who have developed a real capacity for resilience over the last year and a greater sense of independence – and many will have appreciated spending more quality time with their families.   

Of course, schools aren’t able to run any sporting activities right now, do you think that’s had an impact on the children you work with?

We have been able to do some sport with children, although this varies from school to school and has been dependent on the level of lockdown measures. Teachers and coaches have had to innovate to keep children engaged in some form of exercise - be it online HIIT classes in their bedrooms, or running weekend rugby, netball and football training in separate year group bubbles. Cross country running has been a popular option for children in lockdown: it's a non-contact sport that is done outside and requires no equipment or specific facilities, and it lends itself to being distanced. There has never been a better time for children and young people to start running! 

 

Whilst some children in lockdown have been able to exercise with a parent or friend, many do not have this opportunity. This has impacted on the self-esteem of teenagers in particular; they are the most body-conscious demographic group, and months of a more sedentary lifestyle has, for some young people, really affected their self-esteem in relation to body image. We have some children who are worried about returning to school because they are anxious that their friends might notice and comment on the change in their bodies during lockdown.   

What do you think being part of a running club bring to a young person’s life?

Being part of a running club is such a source of joy and pride for young athletes. Children love being part of a team and spending time with people their own age, and this is something that being in a running club facilitates. It instils values such as sportsmanship, and - for those young people who run competitively - it helps them recognise that hard work will yield results. Being able to work with coaches holistically teaches young people healthy habits that we hope they will carry forward into their adult lives, such as prioritising recovery and learning how to adequately fuel for a training session. My young runners would probably say that running with a school team, for them, has been 'character building'; living in Yorkshire, there are many times we've used this phrase whilst coaxing them up muddy hills in the rain!   

If someone is thinking of starting running as a hobby but feel intimidated by school clubs, what advice would you give them?

I would definitely encourage them 'have a go' - they really have nothing to lose! They could go for a jog with a parent, sibling or friend - they don't have to join a school cross country team to take part in running. I would definitely remind a young person (or anyone!) who is new to running, that you don't actually have to run all the time on a run! I would get them to start off with a mixture of easy running and walking and encourage them to build up slowly from there. They will still get all the benefits from being outside (and, if possible, in nature), time away from screens, and that flood of post-run endorphins that we runners love so much! 

There’s a common misconception that you must be good at running in order to take part at school – do you think that’s true?

Absolutely not! Yes, there are very good athletes in school clubs who will run for their county and will be competing at national level - but the same goes for any sport. We should be encouraging children and teenagers to take part in as many sports as possible, because research shows that early specialisation doesn't tend to make the best athletes long-term. Contrary to popular belief, a school running club should also be about having fun and letting off steam, with sessions that have something for everyone. Children love play (even the older ones!), so we tend to start most sessions, after the warm-up, with some running games. Themed sessions are also a great way of making school running fun, like organising an Easter Egg running scavenger hunt (you would be amazed how much quicker children are able to run when there is chocolate to be found!) or fancy-dress Santa-dash around your school site or local park.

Finally, how has running helped you? Do you think that it has improved your mental wellbeing?

Running is such an important tool in my mental health toolkit! When it's cold and dark outside, it might take a bit more self-motivation, but I never come back from a run and regret going. I feel that the last 12 months have made me appreciate a different kind of running - one that is simply about being outside in nature, looking after my body and mind, and connecting with others. Although I miss running and racing with my club, many of my friendships and relationships have deepened during those muddy miles exercising with only one other person. It's nice to sometimes have the challenge of chasing a PB or testing your endurance... it proves that you can endure other challenges that life throws at you. And yes, you might even win the race... but there's also a lot that you lose when it becomes all about the numbers!  

 

If you’ve read this and it has resonated, be it with your own experiences of sport in school or that of your children, I hope it inspires you to encourage sport of any kind in anyone with an interest. Or more specifically, those who appear not to have an interest! One of my biggest regrets is not having made an effort to get into running at school, I wish someone like Laura had been there to encourage me to have a go. Like she said, what’s the worst that could happen – it might just become a fantastic tool in your mental health toolkit. 

This blog post was contributed by Beth Henry, who works for This Is London Magazine. They are currently publishing online at www.til.com as well as through their social channels; 

Instagram: @thisislondonmag

Twitter: @thisislondonmag 

 

They have new active content each issue, with new running/cycling routes and information about all things active in London. The magazine makes sure that their readers are up to date with the latest information on all things London. 


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