Running got these ladies through some tough stuff: mental illness, accidents, the death of a loved one. Behold the healing power of hitting the pavement.

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
November 04, 2017
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word "running"? For many women, it brings back terrible memories of high school gym class or punishing weight-loss routines. But running doesn't need to be about sweat, grit, and pain. At its best, running is peaceful, meditative, and even healing. No, it's not a replacement for therapy, but it can help improve depression symptoms and relieve anxiety, helping you better manage life's challenges, big and small. In fact, people who do cardiovascular exercises, like running, experience better mental and emotional health, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Running seems to improve the way certain neurotransmitters that influence mood communicate in the brain. And it's not just science saying that running can help you weather life's storms. Here, five women share how running helped them overcome the hardest challenge of their lives.

"Running alleviated my anxiety and depression."-Alison Mariella Désir, 32, Harlem, New York

"Running saved my life. In 2012, I was unemployed, isolated, depressed, and had no idea how to better my situation. Then I saw a post on social media from a friend training for a marathon. As I followed his journey online I saw how running was transforming his life, and I decided to give it a shot myself. I signed up for my first marathon.

"As a child, I earned the nickname 'Powdered Feet' because I was so active. (Powdered Feet is a Haitian Kreyol saying that describes someone so active that you never see them, just the footprints of where they've been in powder.) Yet even though I was so active as a kid, I'd lost some of that momentum as an adult-to the point where I was overwhelmed with depression and worry. I felt like could barely leave the house much less do anything more. But then, for the first time, I saw a way to get my 'powder feet' back. Running was hard at first, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment and worthiness-with every run I proved to myself that I could do more than I thought. The depression started to fade into background noise. Race day came and my months of hard work paid off when I completed the marathon. Not only was my mood and health better but I'd also raised over $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I was hooked. (Learn about another mom who overcame postpartum depression thanks to running.)

"Don't get me wrong, running didn't magically fix everything. I still suffer from anxiety and depression, but running is a major factor in helping me get through my darker days. It helps me process my emotions, it gives me a sense of control over my body, it allows me to push past my own perceived limitations, and it connects me to a much wider community of people in my neighborhood and beyond. Thanks to running, I no longer feel alone in my struggle and feel stronger for having gone through it, which has enabled me to reach out and help others who are struggling.

"Since that fateful marathon, I've run several more races and founded two movements, Harlem Run and Run 4 All Women, which are communities dedicated to making running more accessible and inclusive."

"Running helped me cope with being a young widow."-Sarah Brashears, 39, Camden, New Jersey

"My husband died of an unexpected heart attack, the morning after his 40th birthday. One day we were eating cake and celebrating and the next I was a young widow and single mom of three kids, the youngest of whom was only 2. My work gave me the rest of the year off to deal with the situation and while I'd always been a motivated self-starter, this event completely derailed me. It felt like the person I was-all my energy, sense of purpose and self- disappeared. I decided to try running. I'd done a marathon a few years prior and had enjoyed the experience, so I hoped it would provide a healthy outlet for all my feelings.

"Running didn't fix everything, but I discovered that for about two hours after I ran I felt like myself again, able to make decisions about my future and help my children through this nightmare. I'd sometimes go running in the morning and at night, just to get that bit of mental space. I'm not sure of how the physiology worked, only that it cleared my brain of the pain enough to let myself through.

"It's been two years since that day, and I'm still running. Now I'm training for a half marathon with my 14-year-old daughter who has picked up on my love of running."

"Running was my saving grace after my mother's death."-Amy De Seyn, 29, Denver, Colorado

"I've been running since I was in middle school-I grew up on 40 acres and used to run through the woods as a way to escape my abusive father and difficult home life. I ran competitively all the way through high school and college, competing in Division I for a year. But partway through college, my priorities shifted and soon I was skipping my runs (and classes) to do drugs and party with my friends. Then, in 2012, something happened that would change my whole world: My mom died. Her death brought up a lot of difficult and painful feelings for me and I wasn't sure how to handle them at first. But then I remembered how I used to use running as a way to escape my abusive father. I knew running could save me again. I laced up my shoes and hit the pavement.

"Those daily runs became my saving grace. They gave me time to process my feelings about my mom and deal with my grief. And because I loved running, I knew I had to give up the drugs and other unhealthy habits. It ended up turning my whole life around. These days I run post-collegiately, heading out three to four times a week, and I coach as well. I've also discovered that running helps me manage my depression. I love the dopamine hit I get from the 'runner's high,' and running makes me feel beautiful, confident, strong, and healthy."

"Trails were my happy place after a devastating car accident."-Shannon Hagen, Minneapolis, Minnesota

"I love weightlifting. I'd done some running and other types of cardio in the past, but there was just something about being strong and lifting heavy things that thrilled me. So earlier this year I decided to train for a bodybuilding competition. I was just three weeks out from competing in my first IFPA Pro Figure show when I was blindsided-literally and figuratively-by a terrible car accident.

"I suffered a traumatic brain injury and severe whiplash which not only took me out of competition but sidelined me from any kind of training for nearly nine months. I wasn't completely healed, but I finally got clearance to work out again. My coach started me with mild cardio and no lifting. I was frustrated at first, but then I realized I could run and it didn't cause any pain. (Read about this woman's battle with Crohn's disease helped her cherish every single run her body would let her do.)

"I wasn't running any long-distance races, just 2 to 3 miles here and there. Eventually, I worked up to trail running, which is now my happy place. When I'm out running trails, I need to be alert and on my toes at all times. I feel like a gazelle jumping over logs and dodging rocks and roots. Running let me put the accident and my injuries behind me. I may not have been able to do my competition, but now I know I will never be defeated."

"Running brings back memories of my dad."-Heather H., St. Petersburg, Florida

"In 2011 I was a single mom, full-time college student and part-time employee. I felt like I didn't have a second to spare, much less hit the gym. And then my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It was a really scary time as we didn't have a lot of answers at first. He and I were close and the thought of losing him devastated me. Around this time I started taking long walks, first as a way to clear my head and then because I loved how it made me feel. Eventually, those walks turned into runs.

"My runs gave me a chance to forget about everything going on in my life for a little bit and cleared out some of the panic and allowed me to refocus on what was important: My kids and helping my dad get through whatever lay ahead.

"Despite my busy schedule, I found the time to accompany him to all his doctor's appointments. It was an opportunity to spend time with him while I still could. In between commitments, I kept up my runs and they became my lifeline, drowning out my panic and anxiety with every footstep. Unfortunately, my dad's cancer was incurable and he passed away in 2014. The running then turned from helping me cope with his illness to helping me mourn his death. I don't run as much as I'd like to anymore, but to this day running still brings back fond memories of my dad and that time I had with him."

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