Charlie Webster column: How running together virtually can help with mental health

Charlie Webster is a broadcaster and writer, a campaigner on social issues, and is a keen Ironman and triathlon competitor.

“This week’s been up and down.”

Anybody relate? It’s exactly how I’ve felt during this whole period and one of the most common phrases I hear at the moment.

I think it’s completely normal, not being up all the time doesn’t mean it’s something we’ve done wrong.

I don’t know anyone who is full of energy and happy every day but a lot of us seem to beat ourselves up if we’re not fitting our perfect expectations.

As soon as lockdown started, without even thinking or planning it really, I posted on Twitter about doing a mental health support group.

And I started posting about running as well, it’s something that has always helped me cope since I was a kid.

Giving your mind something to focus on

A lot of people are using running at the moment for their mental health and something to focus on.

I’ve found that if I set a session with a friend or with people on social media, even if I feel lethargic or de-motivated, it gets me going because I don’t want to let them down and I know I will feel so much better after.

I started posting what I was going to do or when I was going to exercise and asking if anybody wanted to come for a run at the same time, whether that be outside or inside.

Try out one of Charlie’s interval sessions
Hard effort on each interval, trying to not lose pace. Two minutes slow run/jog in between each rep.
1. 45 seconds x 2
90 seconds x 2
3 minutes x 2
6 minutes x 2
3 minutes x 2
90 seconds x 2
45 seconds x 2

I live in a flat, so it’s always outside for me. Some people cycle or walk at the same time.

Knowing somebody else is exercising with them gives that sense of community and also I look forward to seeing everyone post a picture or how they felt after.

I never post times just because that can immediately become a negative message of comparison. It’s just about the feel good of “yes, I’ve done it”.

Each week I’ve been posting some, let’s say, leg hammering interval sessions that I’ve dug out from old training programmes or made up from when I used to do all this a lot more seriously than I do now. I even used to teach and coach.

It has made me laugh at some of the comments. “I did that session you posted, my legs are not thanking you right now.”

Intervals are great because it gives your mind something to focus on and shakes up your running rather than running at the same pace for a period of time. The other week I had two squirrels chasing me because I put my hand in my pocket a few times – it was for my phone, not squirrel nuts.

‘Lockdown is everything I struggle with’

Last year I was part of a mental health support group, a face-to-face one before video calls came into our homes, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done despite being really wary to start with.

I found it difficult to open up about how I was feeling and internalised my emotions.

This is definitely not the first time of uncertainty, fear and worry in my life. I immediately had a little warning light in my brain that said “are you going to be able to deal with this?”

Lockdown is everything that I struggle with.

I’m not great at sitting still, I like to be outside, I get cabin fever even when I’m allowed to go outside, and I need to be busy otherwise my brain just won’t stop pestering me. It even wakes me up talking to itself in my sleep sometimes.

Or it can go the other way where it has a moment of dark, secluded fog.

‘I find deep thinkers in football management’

I’ve been speaking to different sports stars about mental health for my new podcast My Sporting Mind.

Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool and England goalkeeper, said depression to him felt like he was in a see-through steel box and could see himself not doing anything, slipping away but banging on the box to try and get out, but just couldn’t.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’ve partnered with the EFL and charity Mind to speak to a variety of players and managers from across the leagues as part of their Have Your Mate’s Back campaign.

I had a chat with Brentford manager Thomas Frank and he’s fascinating to talk to. I always find the management side of football full of deep thinkers.

2017: ‘I was in a very dark dark place’ – Chris Kirkland on anxiety & depression

He said “if there is no weakness, there is no strength”. I quite like that as a motto. It takes a huge amount of strength and courage to reach out but talking to someone may help make sense of those feelings.

I know how I am, which is a start, and because of how much work I’ve done on my own mental health and study on depression, I know that I have the tools to cope.

Break everything down into small, manageable steps, focus on what you can control in this situation, make time for myself, look at each day at a time and not far ahead, speak to friends and family, get enough sleep, eat properly… and run, lots. And then run a bit more.

From some of the conversations I’ve been having recently, including with Chris, the common message across the board is: reach out, ask for help.

I know it’s not that simple, but as Chris said “it doesn’t fix it as soon as you ask for help but you do feel a relief knowing there are people there. It’s like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.”

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