Grief, health, and running: how a muddy run got me back on track

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Amy Tau explains how running helped her through following the loss of her parents.

The relationship between grief and mental health is well trodden, and gently being discussed more and more in day to day life, scientific research, and arts and media. 

Meanwhile, the way grief can manifest itself into physical health symptoms – the dizziness, nausea, tiredness, and even physical pain – is less discussed.

You’re unlikely to be looking after yourself particularly well after losing someone. Getting enough sleep, eating enough and eating the right kinds of things are probably some of the first things to go out the window after loss. It’s also been proven that your immune system takes a hit when you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you. 

Three days after graduating from university, I lost my Dad unexpectedly, and in the months that followed found my physical health took as much of a hit as my mental health did. Being a couple of weeks into my first office job, I found I was sitting more and moving less than I had done before. The stress and unpredictability that came with losing someone unexpectedly kept kicking my fight or flight instincts into play, which didn’t exactly pair well with a desk job where I needed to sit still and focus for eight hours a day. 

Somewhere along the road, I was recommended Bella Mackie’s book, Jog On. It was optimistically subtitled “How running saved my life”, and I admittedly cringed at the idea of some kind of fix-all solution. But then I read it in one sitting, on a horribly delayed train to Wales, and it gave me just the right gentle push to dig out my old trainers a few days later.

After the first few runs, I’d come home absolutely exhausted. But beginning to adjust, my lack of sleep started to improve. Slowly I went from being ready to crawl back into bed after a run, to being able to run the 9km from my flat to my office before work. I was eating better, because I needed the energy, and slowly found myself crawling out of the sphere of grief and back into a routine. But mostly, it was a relief to take that ‘fight or flight’ feeling, and put it into running as far as I could, to turn it into something that would improve my health rather than harm it.

A photo of a green field with a misty sky as the sun rises.
A picture by Amy on a misty morning run

Running was never going to solve all of the problems that come with losing a parent in your early twenties, and there have been the days when even the idea of getting out of bed felt a bit overwhelming, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve left the house for a run worrying about something, then come back with a fully formed solution. 

In September last year I lost my mum, also unexpectedly, while still in my twenties. Forcing myself out for a run got harder, but it was a lifeline having this coping mechanism for processing grief already ‘pre-installed’ and ready to go. It feels futile in some ways, keeping myself as healthy as possible when both of my parents were active, sporty people who then died in their fifties, but something keeps pushing me on. 

I am categorically the slowest runner I know. I hated PE all through school. I hate going out running with other people with a passion, and in the five years I’ve been running I’ve never even got close to signing up for some kind of organised run. 

But that’s not why I’m doing it. I can comfortably run 10km, and the benefits of that hour with nothing but my own thoughts for company are completely the reason I do it, and entirely worth it. There’s rarely been a week in the last five years where I haven’t managed to get out for a run.

I can probably credit running with getting me through every major life change I’ve gone through as an adult, bookended up to this point by grief, and I think I’ll always be grateful for the freedom it’s given me. 

Amy Tau

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