The Powerful Mental Benefits of a Daily Morning Run, and How to Start the Habit

Mike Sturm
Nov 1, 2017 · 8 min read

Until I was in my late twenties, I hated running. I played sports (off and on), I did some exercise, but I stayed far away from running anything longer than a distance of a few city blocks.

Running got me exhausted way too quickly. I can’t breathe well through my nose — mostly due to issues with my sinuses and septum. I have lower back issues. My knees crack constantly, and one of them had some pretty bad flare-ups of bursitis. All legitimate reasons to continue to stay away from running.

But for whatever reason, at about age 27, I decided to start running. I enlisted the help of the now well-known Couch to 5K plan, to get me able to run a long distance without needing a nap after a few minutes. I expected to become more physically fit, gain better respiratory endurance, and lose body fat.

Those things all happened. And I was able to finally run a 5K within a few months — posting a decent time. But way more important than all that were the mental benefits that I received from running.

Running clarifies your thinking by changing your mental environment

There have been very few times where I have gone out running and spent the rest of the day feeling mentally clouded and overwhelmed. When I’m running, my mind and body are both outside of the normal constraints of work and life. This provides two benefits that directly correlate to a change in how I think about things.

  1. I am physically away from the noise of emails, documents, task lists, and notes. I’m outside of the chair, and away from my computer — getting fresh air. I am forced to think about things at a high level, based on what is important to me at a fundamental level — not just what I say is a priority on a project list.
  2. I’m allowing my mind to roam without a specific agenda. The pressure is off. I can wander off the beaten path, and think through odd ideas. It’s effectively bonus time.

When it comes down to it, you only have to think about continuing to run, breathe, and ensure you don’t run into something. Sometimes, one or more of those things can demand most of your attention. And though that can get in the way of your thinking, it can actually serve as a really effective reminder to stay centered on what’s important to you.

Running builds mental toughness

This is probably the most Malcolm Gladwell-ish thing I’ll write, but the one trait that seems to display the most return on investment in helping people “make it” is perseverance. In fact, This American Life did a whole story about it vis-à-vis education. There is no more primal a challenge to take on than forcing your way through a tough run.

This applies whether you’re running 10-miles at a 7:00/mile pace, or just trying to run for 30 seconds straight on your first time out. If you are really challenging yourself, it hurts all the same; it weighs down on you just as heavily; you have to dig just as deep to find the fight to push through and keep going. When you do push through, it is glorious, it is validating, it is cathartic. You will recognize a very similar feeling when you go hard at a project, or bear down during a brainstorming session and stumble upon a great idea.

Running relaxes the mind

This may sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me. If you normally find yourself stressed, filled with anxiety, and feel depleted by the day’s end, hoping for a surprise coma to keep you from having to deal with the pile of sh…stuff on your desk tomorrow, try running.

Run hard. Run to beat your last record. You will feel exhausted. You will have left it all on the road (or the trail) so to speak. But somehow, after a shower and your coffee, you’ll feel like everything is a lot less loud and fear-inducing. I don’t expect you to take my word for it; go ahead and try it. Feel free to email me in all caps to digitally yell at me if you don’t feel the aforementioned effects.

Running Sets a productive tone for the Day

If you wake up while most of the world is still asleep, and get a solid effort in during a run (no matter what your pace or mileage), I defy you to not feel the wind of productivity at your back.

Running creates momentum, both physical and emotional momentum. The latter is so vital to being productive, because momentum is 80% of the battle in whatever you’re trying to get done.

It’s easier to get moving when you’ve already gotten moving. No easier way to do that than a morning run.

Running is simple to begin, difficult to keep doing, and very difficult to do well

There is no simpler sport than running. All you need in order to get started is your body. Even shoes and clothes are optional (though usually preferred).And yet it is one of the most difficult to do well.

There are no barriers to entry, no tools that need to be purchased and learned before one can even begin the process. There are no books to read, no equipment to buy, no apps to download, and no gyms to join. You can literally get up from where you are, walk out the door, and start.

As far as barriers to just doing a thing, running has the fewest of them. It should represent the procrastinator’s worst nightmare, because so long as a medical professional hasn’t told you not to, you can just start…now.

Once you are out there, the simplicity of the exercise gives way to the difficulty of pushing yourself past previous limits. The end point is so far away as you begin to fatigue, and yet all you can do is keep taking one step at a time. You can speed up or slow down, but either will cost you over time; you must be strategic in using your energy. There is a hidden economy at work in a run.

Running is the perfect metaphor

Running is often the basis for metaphors that are used when talking about perseverance, achievement, and strength. Think of it: “mad dash”, “hit the ground running”, “crossing the finish line”, and so on. If you’ve ever really pushed yourself on a run, you will know exactly why that is.

Each run can be a saga, a war; rising action, climax, denouement. Every set of emotions, and nearly every type of gut-wrenching adversity can be experienced during a good run. It can only help you to go out there and run after them — literally.

Maybe you’re not sold on running yet as a habit, and that’s fine; you can’t start a habit. You can start taking actions that build one, and that’s really all you can do. The habit happens when the actions become part of who you are. I happen to be a runner — and it has made a huge impact on my life.

How to Form The Habit

Obviously, you have to get out there and run the first day, in order to make it a habit. There’s no way around that. But I have found some practical tips to make it that much easier to make running a habit you can stick to.

Take it Ridiculously Easy to Start With

Start with a very easily achievable goal for your first few runs. Just try running for 10 straight minutes, or 1/4 mile — whatever you think is 50% less than what you could easily do. This ensures that you won’t be discouraged when you don’t meet aggressive goals — which happens to so many people trying to start running regularly.

Put Your Clothes and Shoes by the Door the Night Before

If I had to pick the easiest but most effective way to get a regular morning run going, it’d be this one. Whatever you need for running: clothes, heart monitor, headphones, shoes, etc — put them out the night before, so they’re ready to put on and go. It’s easy to do, and one less thing to keep you from getting out there.

Give Yourself a Buffer before the Run

I wake up about an hour and a half before the time I step out the door to run. I get up, make coffee, and do an hour of work, as well as eat a small snack. Why do I do this? Two reasons.

First, and most importantly, almost nobody feels like running when they first wake up. I feel sleepy, stiff, achy, and foggy. If I had to get myself up and running (literally) right away, I’d take a hard pass on it. So what I do instead is allow some time to enjoy some coffee, eat a quick snack, hydrate, journal, and take care of some emails. By the time I do that, I tend to be more awake and ready to do something other than sit and work.

Secondly, having time before the run helps you to keep nagging thoughts from taking away from your run. Check your email, make your to-do list — do whatever puts your mind relatively at ease, so that you can at least start out your run with a relatively calm mind.

Use a Playlist of Music that Physically Affects You

You know that song that when you hear it, it gives you chills, and you can’t help but feel energized by it? I have a whole Spotify playlist of those called “Run”. It’s 109 songs that give me little jolts of energy. Some are fast and heavy, some are groovy, some are slow. But they all make me feel something profound, and thus get me moving.

This isn’t the same as downloading some playlist that someone else curated, which is scientifically formulated to match the pace of your run. This isn’t about keeping tempo with an elevated heartbeat. This is about finding songs that personally get you energized — many of those would never show up on a curated “workout” playlist. An example from my list? “Swiss Army Romance” by Dashboard Confessional. It’s a slow emo song. No beat at all, because it’s just an acoustic guitar. But it has personal significance for me, and every time it comes on, I get chills. I push harder, I feel better. It works.

Running has amazing physical benefits. But the mental ones are even better. The only way to reap those benefits, though, is to just get out and run. I’ll be doing it until there’s ice on the roads. Join me, wont you?

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Mike Sturm

Written by

In self-imposed exile from academia, reaping the benefits of intellectual promiscuity. Creator of the newsletter “Woolgathering”:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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