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Running as Stress-Relief and Future Self-Continuum

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 56

Hey there,

Last week’s edition about real vs fake stress-relief strategies was a hit! Lots of replies from people recognising they’ve been leaning towards the not-so-good strategies, and wanting to make a change. (I love hearing from you so if anything ever resonates in these letters… don’t keep it to yourself, let me know 🥰)

I thought I’d use this edition to talk more about my ultimate real stress-relief strategy: running.

🤸‍♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:

  • The chemicals shooting around in your brain when you run. You don’t need to be a serious runner to experience the benefits.

  • Meet your Future Self. Strengthen your Future Self-continuity to achieve your long-term goals.

🏃‍♀️ THE CHEMICALS SHOOTING AROUND IN YOUR BRAIN

Running is my ultimate stress-relief strategy because it’s reliable. It almost never fails to give me a brain-buzzing feeling. At the very least, I return home feeling lighter than when I left.

As ultrarunner Adharanand Finn says, “It may only be chemicals shooting around in your brain, but after a long run, everything seems right in the world.”

And here’s the thing:

You don’t need to be an ultrarunner to enjoy this chemical cocktail.

Research shows that just 20-30 minutes, 3-4 times per week, at moderate intensity is enough.

Why moderate?

Well, for decades, it was thought the endorphin release you get from exercising is what creates that runner’s high. Recent evidence has shown there’s another brain chemical at play:

Endocannabinoids.

When you run or do other physical activities, your body produces more of them.

Areas of the brain that regulate the stress response, including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are rich in receptors for endocannabinoids.

So when endocannabinoid molecules lock into these receptors, your stress levels go down. They also tend to decrease pain, improve mood, and set off positive neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, further fueling that feeling of euphoria and optimism.

Now, here’s the great news for us amateur runners:

Research described in the book The Joy of Movement shows that, yes, exercise stimulates the production of endocannabinoids, but not just any kind of exercise.

The researchers compared runners’ endocannabinoid levels in different scenarios:

  • Walking slowly for 30 minutes: no effect

  • Running at maximum effort: no effect

  • Jogging at moderate intensity: tripled endocannabinoid levels

Tripled!!!

These researchers hypothesised from these results that our brain rewards us for exercise at intensities similar to those used for hunting and foraging two million years ago.

In the book, Kelly explains:

“Our ability to experience exercise-induced euphoria is linked to our earliest ancestors’ lives as hunters, scavengers, and foragers. The neurochemical state that makes running gratifying may have originally served as a reward to keep early humans hunting and gathering.”

So here’s how you can apply this to your life and start feeling those brain benefits:

  • Go for a 20-minute jog, at least 3 times per week. (Ideally, you should enjoy running. You won’t have the same chemical effects if you hate every single second of it.)

  • Go at a speed that’s challenging and requires some willpower to keep going, without being exhausting. (Good rule of thumb: could you have a conversation while you’re running? If not, go slower.)

Happy running!

🤝 MEET YOUR FUTURE SELF

When we need to pick between a future and an immediate reward, our brain treats these two options very differently.

  • The immediate reward (couch + wine now) triggers the older, more primitive, dopamine-driven reward system.

  • The value of future rewards (hitting your PB at a race next month) is processed by the prefrontal cortex.

(I delve into the struggle between these two competing minds in more detail here.)

To delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex has to outmuscle your desire for immediate reward. It’s doable but hard. You need to work at it, practice, and sometimes use special techniques.

How to strengthen the value of future rewards in our brain

One technique to consider is strengthening your Future Self-continuity.

That’s the degree to which you see your future self as the same person as your current self. The more you feel this connection, the more likely you are to make choices that your future self will be happy about.

When you don't feel connected to your future self, you’re more likely to make choices that feel great in the moment but are not so beneficial for that future you.

Improving that future-self continuity can help you increase your willpower and get better at sticking to your long-term goals. In the book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal talks about a specific technique: visualizing your Future Self.

I’ve been thinking how to apply this to one of my most important goals: trail running.

Future Charlotte is a trail runner!

Well, I say “important” but let’s just say… Past Charlotte hasn’t been very cooperative.

I did one trail run a year ago. As I was running, the endorphins and endocannabinoids pumping through my system, my mind buzzing “Omg I love this so much. This is what I’m meant to be doing with my life. Yep, I’m going to be a trail runner. I’m going to start a trail running club, and build all my holidays around running. It’s going to be amazing! Yep, trail running is goin’ be my thing!” 

I get home, set up a Whatsapp group with 3 friends I vaguely remember mentioning an interest, research trail runs around Europe, buy the gear, and… completely lose momentum two weeks later.

As soon as life gets busy and stressful, my trail running dream is shelved.

The thing is, running is important to me. And it’s become much more than just the physical thing. I’m obsessed with the mental and emotional benefits. I feel happier, more creative and more social when I run regularly.

So I genuinely want to make running a big part of my life.

And so I’m going to work on my future self-continuity. I’m imagining 2024-Charlotte. I picture her having run several races, training 3-4 times per week, feeling proud, healthy and strong.

Having that image in my mind is motivating, because I really want Future Charlotte to get there. And the only way she’s ever going to experience that satisfaction is if I, today and tomorrow, make the right decisions.

I’m also applying this technique on a smaller scale.

I’m currently on a 12-week training program and am visualizing how I’ll feel in January, having fully completed it.

And even during a run. When I hit a wall and feel the urge to stop, I visualize how I’ll feel an hour later. The warmth of the shower, a satisfaction and tiredness in my legs, ready to tackle the day. That seems to give me the push I need to continue.

Your turn: what would make Future You proud?

What do you know your Future Self would be thrilled about 12 months from now?

Can you pick ONE thing to focus on? Really imagine yourself having accomplished that thing, or being really good at it. Visualize how future you will feel about that. Feel it in your body.

Just one 🕳 to watch out for: don’t get stuck in just imagining how great things will be (like me with my trail running career). Sometimes the mind gets so excited about the idea of accomplishing goal, it forgets to actually take action. Our brains are a bit silly like that.

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