Super Fit at 50: SAD, running and the changing seasons

When I first met my wife, she noticed that my mood fell with the autumnal shorter days, only picking up for Christmas and as the seasons turned to spring.

That seemed to change when I started running in my mid-thirties. I’m now someone who has consistently ‘high’ mood and energy levels, all year round.

Here are a few thoughts on running at this time of year – could it hold the key to better mental health through the changing seasons?

Understanding SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s linked to changes in the seasons, meaning it starts and ends at roughly the same times every year. For most people with SAD, that means a lower mood and increased symptoms starting in the autumn and continuing through the winter. Like other types of depression, it is characterised by persistent low mood, a lack of pleasure in everyday things, feelings of despair and worthlessness, and lethargy, including finding it hard to get out of bed in the mornings. It affects around one in five UK adults.

Although never formally diagnosed, I recognise some of these symptoms in how I used to feel over the winters. Since I’ve started running, my mood has remained pretty stable, and it got me thinking about how the two things relate.

SAD and running

A few years ago, Runners World surveyed their readers about how they felt running influenced their mental health. The results were profound; runners were prepared to credit running with helping them beat depression, overcome bereavement, and get through some of the toughest things life can throw at you. I can definitely relate.

But what does science say? A UCL study found that exercise could reduce the chance of getting depressed by 19%, following over 10,000 people over three decades of their lives. There’s a clear mental health benefit to exercise, where possible, and it goes beyond that rush of endorphins.

SAD and vitamin D

It’s thought that SAD is triggered by a lack of sunlight (and therefore a lack of vitamin D in the body). Studies have found a link between depression and less vitamin D (although it’s not known what role vitamin D actually has) so it makes sense that running outdoors on the road or trails during daylight hours could help. There are also a few other ways to top-up your vitamin D, including using a lightbox for at least 30 minutes a day, and eating more vitamin D-rich foods like salmon, eggs and mushrooms.

There are no easy answers when it comes to mental health. It’s not as simple as ‘go for a run when you’re feeling depressed’. But we do know that getting out in the limited winter daylight hours can help stave off low mood. Running triggers endorphins, as well as giving a sense of drive and purpose during an otherwise testing time of year.

So, that’s what the science says. Now, what about my own vitamin D levels?

I’ve been getting regular blood tests from Forth as a way to tangibly track my Super Fit at 50 progress. I’ve just had my latest results back, and I’m still showing as low on vitamin D, despite taking a hefty daily supplement.

Forth’s Dr Nicky Keay wrote, ‘Your vitamin D continues to be well below the athlete recommended level of 90nmol/l. You would be well advised to review your current dose, as it’s not sufficient. We’d suggest at least 1,000IU per day, sports informed.’

There are a couple of things to take on board there. I’ve been taking the right dose, but it’s not in an informed sports tested formula, so I’ll be checking out products specifically aimed at runners. I’ve also, at times, not been as consistent as I could be about taking my supplements – and this just proves that I need to be.

Some tips for winter running

If you notice a lower mood and more fatigue with the shortening days, give these a try:

  • Sign up to an event – it could give you that boost of drive you need to get up and out there to train, no matter the weather
  • Run with other runners – it’s good to talk, and running with other people is fantastic encouragement
  • Do what you love – keep running positive, by using it to do things you like doing. Sometimes it’s not worth a gruelling work-out if your heart’s just not in it

More importantly, if you’re reading this and you’re struggling with the symptoms of SAD or depression, seek professional help.

All the best for these cold winter runs. Let me know your tips for dealing with the shorter days below. Interested in endurance coaching? I’m an ultra-coach with XNRG – drop me a line on to find out more.

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