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Perfect Pacing: The Relationship between Running and Therapy


Whatever are our views and experiences about running, as counsellors we can’t ignore the exponential growth of running in society in recent years. People are increasingly taking up running for physical and mental health and well-being, and there are many reports and personal stories of the therapeutic nature and positive impact of running on mental health.

Running is the current zeitgeist in society with some media claims that it is a panacea for curing mental health. There are social campaigns which promote running as a form of therapy, and to support their fundraising. Many people are sharing their stories in blogs, articles and novels of how running is their therapy and crediting the therapeutic nature of running for improving general well-being to managing a mental health issue and even saving their lives.

Whilst I was a counsellor in training, I became a runner. I’m still not sure if these were linked but I immediately noticed positive, and unexpected, benefits on my physical and mental health. I became fascinated in what this means for the counselling profession and how counselling is embracing this social movement. I was curious how exactly running and therapy were interrelated. I had read Pullen (2017) and explored how counselling practice was moving out of the therapy room, through outdoor movement therapies, and the development of running as medium for the psychotherapy process.

I had many questions: Was attending counselling being replaced with going for a run? Or shortening the length of therapy? Were people running to manage a specific mental health issue alongside attending counselling? Or was ’running therapy’ simply synonymous with general well-being?

How did counsellors who were runners using running in their practice? Was it a form of self-care? What did they think about integrating running as a therapeutic method into their practice? And what about the therapists who currently offer walk and talk therapy - how does running therapy fit with other outdoor movement therapies?

All this interest led to my research project which explored the question: What are therapist and client experiences of the relationship between running and therapy?

Background: I justified how my ideas were linked through threading themes. The growth and popularity of running can be readily established, as can the science of how running can cause chemical changes in the body which are known to improve mood.

Within counselling there is a growth in outdoor movement therapies, and walk and talk therapy in general, as well as the medical side prescribing exercise in general and the social prescribing of running for mental health, which has been expanded by the parkrun practice initiative.

Historically running therapy isn’t new in counselling practice. The origins of offering therapy on the run are credited to Kostrubala in 1976, who later set up the International Association of Running Therapists in the US in the 1980s. This was extended by Sachs and Buffone (1997) and Hays (1994) leading us to the work of Pullen today. In addition, through applying counselling theories we know that running achieves flow, is a form of bilateral stimulation and, like walk and talk, can offer a relational approach to counselling practice.

Methodology: An open-ended questionnaire with free text responses was completed by 124 people, who could complete as either as therapist or a client, and documented both the therapist and client experiences of running and therapy. A thematic analysis showed three main themes and a significant fourth theme which highlights the implications of not running, within any of these themes, when this is used for therapeutic purpose.

Summary of Findings: The four themes, and sub themes, and are represented in the attached infographic. In theme one respondents reported how running supported general mental health but also how running helped manage a mental health issue.

“I run for mental health mainly. I've had experience of trauma and I've found it helps me to stay grounded and on a more even keel emotionally if I run regularly. It also helps me to manage stress and anxiety” (client)

“Running has repeatedly been the catalyst for recovery in my depressive phases, and I dedicate my time to now helping others use it for the same benefits” (Therapist)

I was particularly interested in aspects of theme two whereby running was integral to talking therapy, both in the process and progress, and how clients and therapists were integrating running into therapeutic goals and using as parts of self. For some clients running had replaced or shortened therapy but the majority were using the two together, both in and away from the session.

“We set running goals alongside counselling goals and worked on the two together” (Client)

Many of my clients are runners and we talk about their goals as well as their mental fortitude of running” (Therapist)

“We use it as a metaphor- my running has impacted my life and I discuss it in therapy” (Client)

“My therapist supports running and sees as my way to discover solutions / deal with problems” (Client)

“I will self-disclose I also run so potentially this could help with rapport and the therapeutic relationship” (Therapist)

“I encourage running and talking about running. It’s part of the affect regulation strategy menu in clients” (Therapist)

I specifically asked the question, would you have or offer therapy on the run? It was interesting that these answers were roughly a 50/50 split and what was seen as a negative for some clients and therapists was a positive for others, such as the confines of the counselling room.

This leads to interesting reflections about the concept of pace in counselling. Both Clients and therapists shared concerns that they couldn’t run and talk, or keep the pace with each other. But when does a walk become a run? Everyone’s pace is different, a faster walk can be someone else’s slower run; someone’s slow run is another’s faster walk. In the therapy room or outside, the counselling process, in and across sessions, is governed by pace.

The findings from the study showed that running is widely used for therapeutic purpose, can supplement talking therapy through therapeutic goals and parts of self, and yet there is a supportive, constructive and sometimes dependent relationship between running and therapy. For runners seeking counselling this is an important part of identity and can be used to support the process and for therapists to be aware how this all may fit together to allow the therapy to move at the clients pace.

Whilst recognising similar limitations to studies on other outdoor movement therapies, running therapy can also be an integrative method of intervention for clients and therapists, as when factors are taken into consideration for offering outdoor counselling, such as contracting, confidentially and boundaries, a key difference between walk and talk and running therapy is pace.

These findings also emphasise how counselling practice can adapt to the current social context of its therapists and clients, at a time when running is prevalent and talking about mental health is activity promoted. Bringing together all these themes together, there is a prominent and stimulating relationship between running and therapy, which can impact the counselling process at many levels.

Author's Bio

Lynn is an integrative counsellor and psychotherapist based in Sheffield, as well as a social worker with children and families. Lynn enjoys running, and writing about running and therapy in her blog. She is a self-confessed parkrun addict and promotes running, walking and volunteering at parkrun as an important part of self-care and mental health.

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