Introducing running therapy

After virtual therapy and the rise of weekend warriors booking time with sports psychologists, the latest trend in mental health is one that will appeal to fitness enthusiasts: running with your therapist.

The running therapy pioneers

Sepideh Saremi, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist who created her own method called Run Walk Talk, meets her patients at her Redondo Beach, California, office and they head out on a walk or run together. “My sessions are about mental and emotional fitness, and an opportunity to use the body to understand what's happening in our lives and how we relate to other people,” Saremi explains. “We're doing therapy while we run, not training for a race or worrying about how many calories we burned or our pace.”

Saremi has found that running therapy is especially suited to people who find it difficult to sit still for a full hour, or simply don’t want to. “I find it helpful for people who need to feel ‘productive’ and for whom sitting in the therapy office feels like a waste of time,” she says. For this reason, a lot of high-achievers come to her for sessions that do double-duty; they get to work on their mental health while also squeezing in a workout.

Saremi initiated a run-therapy practice while working at a Los Angeles community mental health center that served refugees who had been through serious emotional trauma. “Some of my patients really had a hard time tolerating traditional therapy, which relies on a lot of face-to-face interaction in an office,” she says. “So I started suggesting walks outside of the office, and people opened up much more and had a much easier time connecting." When she branched out into private practice, she began incorporating running—a personal interest—into her offerings and watched it skyrocket in popularity.

Another of the first adopters of running therapy is William Pullen, MBACP, a London-based psychotherapist who has created a method called Dynamic Running Therapy(DRT). Like Saremi’s method, Pullen’s incorporates walking, running, and being outdoors. After going through a difficult break-up, Pullen took up running. “I asked a friend who was going through a divorce to join me, and together we shared our problems,” he recalls. “I was also in therapy at this time and I noticed how the running helped me explore what was happening inside of me." Later, he decided to become a therapist himself and used that training to develop his own form of running therapy.

The mental and physical perks

“Though we need more research when it comes to running therapy, the physical benefits of running would likely apply to running therapy as well," says Sarmi. Running on its own has been shown to be an effective intervention to improve mood, and Saremi points out that research indicates that just a single session can help reduce depressive symptoms. She also incorporates mindfulness techniques like running in sync with your breath, counting breaths, and paying close attention to surroundings. The practice has numerous advantages, but especially an improved ability to regulate emotions. Lastly, Pullen emphasizes the fact that being outdoors in itself is uplifting. Research has proven that exercising outside has added mental health benefits when compared to exercising indoors.

The future of fit-therapy For those interested in walking during therapy, there are plenty of options. Simply search “walk and talk therapy” along with the name of your city. Running therapy, on the other hand, is harder to come by. “Right now, there are very few practitioners in the world who provide running therapy, which I'm trying to change along with a couple of my colleagues in other cities,” says Saremi. Pullen is also in the process of training more practitioners in DRT, so with any luck, running therapy will become as ubiquitous as the other self-care practices the wellness community has so readily adopted.