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Improve your mental health by using goals to start running - by Ellen Allsop

Improve your mental health by using goals to start running - by Ellen Allsop

With around a quarter of the UK population experiencing mental health problems each year (1), this is clearly an issue that needs addressing. The good news is that something as simple as running can help to reduce any mental health problems you might be experiencing, such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. Not only does running give you a reason to get outside and do something positive for yourself, it can also make changes to your brain at a biological level. Endorphins (a type of neurochemical) are released when you exercise, acting in a similar way to drugs such as heroin which are often taken to enhance an individual's mood. Because of this, endorphins have a similar mood enhancing effect to heroin without the negative effects of taking drugs.

Starting running to experience an increase in mood couldn't be more simple. All you will need is some suitable clothes (some leggings or tracksuit trousers and a t-shirt should do to start with), some trainers, and, for women, a sports bra. There are plenty of training plans out there but a good place to start is Couch to 5k, a basic programme designed by the NHS to get complete beginners running a 5k within 9 weeks. The app talks to you as you run, telling you when to run and when to have a walking break so you will never feel like you don't know what you are doing.  Don't be disheartened if the first few runs feel really hard. As long as you rest between runs your body will adapt and over time running will start to feel easier.

Once you start running you will see the biggest changes in your mental health if you keep going with it rather than giving up when the weather is bad, you've had a long day at work or some other obstacle crops up. Setting goals will help with this because if you have a goal to work towards you are far more likely to go running when you don't really want to. Any goals you set should be SMART goals. This is broken down below:


Something that is clear, not just a general goal to 'get better at running'


Your goal should be something you can measure, this will probably be either in terms of a specific time or a distance so you know when you have achieved it


You should have a specific plan to help you to achieve this goal, such as a series of short term goals


The goal you choose should be challenging but still something which you are likely to be able to achieve with hard work


You should have a deadline for your goal, this could be a specific date/ race or just by the end of the year

A good goal might be to pick a race to aim for. For a first race, I would recommend one that focuses more on enjoying the event rather than being competitive. Something like a Colour Run or Santa Run would be ideal. For women, Race for Life is the most beginner friendly and supportive race you are ever likely to find. Parkrun is also brilliant and offers a free, supportive 5k race each week in hundreds of locations across the world. You also have the option to record your time so you can see improvements over time, which is a great motivator. 

Setting different types of goals is also important. Completing a race is an example of a performance goal as it is based around the outcome of an event. Another useful type of goal to set when you are starting running is process goals. These focus more on the individual steps needed to achieve your performance goals. For example, if your performance goal is to run a 5k in under 30 minutes in three months’ time your process goals could be to run three times a week (this is what Couch to 5k recommends and so is a good place to start) and to stretch for 10 minutes after each run to minimise the risk of injury. 

To help you out I have created a simple table for you to fill in with a performance goal (such as a race or distance you want to run by a certain date) and a few process goals to help you achieve that goal.

Performance goal



Process goal 1



Process goal 2



Process goal 3




With this in mind, why not fill in the table above, step out of your front door and go on your first run? You'll be doing something really positive for your mental health and you never know, you might really enjoy it! 

1) McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey.

The NHS Information Centre for health and social care. Accessed online here


Huge thanks to Ellen Allsop for sharing her research. You can follow her on twitter @EllenAllsop 


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