Running, lithium and bipolar

No excuses, look after yourself!  

Having discovered the joy of running in my mid‐twenties, I stopped when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The medication massively zapped my energy, and the weight I put on as a side effect knocked my confidence.

But feeling brave three years ago I signed up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon. Not long after signing up, before I’d really started training, I sank into a severe depression. Depression usually comes with low energy and motivation – I couldn’t have felt less like running, but somehow I forced myself. Those runs usually made me feel a bit better in the immediate aftermath, but they couldn’t lift me out of the abyss. I was signed off work – and ended up being off for four months.

My psychiatrist changed my medication to lithium and it really worked. I started feeling better pretty quickly. But lithium complicated matters in terms of the running. I was advised to be careful about how much I exercised, particularly in the heat. With lithium, water intake and salt levels need to be kept steady, otherwise it won’t work as effectively, and it can even become toxic.

Although I kept on running, I decided the half marathon was a bit much for me. I was nervous about the medication. I told a runner I knew that I’d decided to pull out. “Those are just excuses”, he said. Those words really stuck with me. And “no excuses” is a message I’ve seen a few times since.

I was well enough to go back to work soon after. I settled on a relatively low lithium dose and I felt I’d be able to run safely on this, so the next year I signed up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon again. Training wasn’t easy. Lithium can make me very tired – I need more sleep and I’m pretty useless in the mornings so running before work isn’t really an option. Often, I’d come back from work feeling zonked too, so I didn’t always manage the four runs a week in my training plan. I felt guilty. “No excuses” was ringing in my head all the time.

The good news is I did the half marathon. I didn’t want to miss it again and I felt that running it was the right thing for me. Due to a cough and cold, that also hampered my training, I spluttered and coughed all the way round and I had a stitch from mile three right up to the finish line. I’d prepared mentally for it being difficult, but actually, I really enjoyed it. I loved being part of Team Mind and was really proud of my fundraising.

In my job, I find myself telling people quite a lot to “be kind to yourself”. In my running, I really need to work out how to do this alongside having “no excuses”. I think both these messages have their place – I do understand the “no excuses” thing and I really want to push myself but I need to learn to keep this in perspective and to make it work for me, I need to strike a balance to manage the guilt and self‐criticism and to know when to give myself a break.

Hopefully then, running will start to be good for my mental health.

Exercise and bipolar:

  • It’s important to look after your physical health
  • You can exercise safely if you’re taking lithium
  • Don’t feel guilty about not exercising if you’re feeling low