If you’ve been feeling more moments of rage over these past few months—building even more strongly these last few weeks and days—you’re not alone. Perhaps you’ve experienced a burning rage about our country’s election cycle or the government’s overall mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or maybe your growing fury is a combination of those factors, meshed together with everything else going on in the tumultuous day-to-day of our lives.
You may try to keep it all together until you just can’t anymore, and the rage spills out unexpectedly. There are tons of ways to attempt to process and work through this anger, but I’ve found one that works for me: the Rage Run.
I first discovered the power of rage running after I was ghosted and stiffed out of payment for a project I worked on a while ago, despite my polite and persistent follow-ups. The rage that boiled over when the guy finally answered his phone with his excuse—that he would have paid, if it weren’t for my “bad attitude”—acted as the tipping point for me, the culmination of months and months of becoming increasingly livid over what’s been coming out of our administration.
So I did what felt most natural to me: I went for a run. What happened next was pure beauty. I glided across the pavement, my feet barely feeling the steps. There was nothing but pleasant static in my brain. When I finally emerged, I realized my pace had dipped into threshold pace territory—meaning, I was going quickly for much longer than I normally could have. Suddenly, I was running a (nearly) four-minute mile.
It was all thanks to the rage run. And my experience was definitely not unusual. Not only did my anger help me run more quickly, but it seemed that the more I ran, the more my untamed feelings subsided. My fists unclenched, my jaw relaxed, and my mind focused on the run—not the rage propelling it.
The potential mental health benefits of a rage run
To be extremely clear: Even though physical activity like running can generally have great mental health benefits, it definitely won’t always be enough to even temporarily relieve intense stress, anxiety, and anger—like the type many of us have felt this year especially. So I’m not suggesting that going on a run is enough to “fix” every problem or even any problem facing you right now. Rather, running, and rage running in particular, can be one part of a self-care plan to help some people stay afloat in chaotic times.
Unfortunately, trying to use running as self-care in this way can come with dangerous hurdles—feeling safe enough to even go out for a run is a privilege many people don’t have due to factors like racism. As Rozalynn S. Frazier wrote for SELF in August, “When I run I often wonder how I am now perceived, and how that affects my safety. Black people are already seen as threats, so a Black person running with a mask is basically a recipe for racial profiling.” She adds, “Now the thing that often brings me joy comes with a dual set of emotions: a wave of calming bliss, that runner’s high that I often chase, as well as a spike of uneasiness that causes me to be hypervigilant.” But, Frazier concludes, she will keep relying on running to do what it always has for her: “provide comfort in times of distress.”
Many runners—myself included—report that logging miles helps them clear their minds and ease intense emotions. “Running is a great self-care activity,” Gloria Petruzzelli, Ph.D., a licensed clinical and sports psychologist at Sacramento State athletics, tells SELF.
Even when it comes to self-care, be mindful not to try to use running to stifle your anger or more broadly not feel your feelings. Feeling unbridled rage right now is an incredibly valid reaction to many current events in this country, and it’s important to process that anger instead of ignoring it. Studies have shown a strong correlation between anger and anxiety, and unresolved anger can cause physical symptoms like digestion problems, headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, and high blood pressure. “This might sound a little corny, but you have to develop an intimate relationship with your anger,” Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Rutgers University and author of Anger Management in Sport, tells SELF. “Too many people are scared or ashamed of their anger, which is why they don’t handle it.”
Thanks to endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that cause the runner’s high, running can lift your mood and help you feel more equipped to confront your anger, even if only for a bit. It may also help you focus on what you can control, which mental health experts say is key for making it through uncertain, anxiety-producing times.
But these positive effects won’t necessarily happen all the time post-run, Petruzzelli warns—and, again, they likely won’t be a magical cure for every terrible thing you may be feeling right now. You’ll probably have to take other steps to try to process negative emotions like anger.
“If we cannot process what is triggering the rage, then it will only fester,” Petruzzelli says. “No amount of running can alleviate that.”
Journaling after running or physical activity—writing out your feelings on paper or digitally—is Petruzzelli’s go-to for athletes dealing with intense emotions. “Try to identify the emotion under the anger,” she says. “Is it stress? A feeling of loss of control? Then ask yourself: ‘What triggered me? What are the options to deal with the problem? What are some effective steps I can take?’” She also advises talking it out with someone like a friend. Remember, even the best listeners do not take the place of a trained therapist, counselor, or doctor. If you feel tense, nervous, unable to relax, overwhelmed, or regularly notice a pattern of rage for more than a week, Petruzzelli recommends seeking professional help or mental health support. That might sound like a very low bar for seeking support—so many of us have been cycling through those emotions for much longer than a week—but that’s the point. A lot of us could use mental health support at this time in a way that rage runs can’t deliver. More on that in a bit.
Why rage can make you faster
To figure out exactly what caused my incredible rage run, I called Mary Johnson, C.S.C.S., USATF-certified run coach, and the founder of Lift Run Perform, and asked why I crushed those miles. “That sounds like the product of adrenaline and overall fitness,” she tells SELF.
When your body produces more adrenaline (also known as epinephrine)—a stress hormone made by your adrenal gland—your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and the air passages in your lungs open up more.
“Plus, the flood of adrenal chemicals in your brain makes your mind hyper-focused—you get set at the task at hand,” Johnson says. “A lot of it is psychological. Because the fitness to run as fast as you did is already in you.”
Petruzzelli says that the adrenaline we feel from anger is a stress reaction in our brain. “The brain reacts to anger in the same way it reacts to fear or danger,” she says. “Your sympathetic nervous system takes over and sends the distress signals from the brain to the rest of the body. In this moment, the only thing your body is focused on is survival. This is what causes adrenaline to pump through your blood.”
All of this can combine to help you produce a pretty damn good run, like it did with my threshold rage run. Petruzzelli notes that in addition to those physiological changes, hitting a P.R. during a rage run could also happen because you may not be able to read, connect with, or interpret your body’s signals—like pain.
“Flight-or-fight mode is like the body’s alarm system,” she says. “The alarm system is so loud that it’s really hard to think or be attuned to anything else. You can’t pay attention to pain or discomfort at all.”
This can be good and bad. In running, being able to tune out the discomfort that comes with a hard run (think: heavy breathing, sore legs, side stitches) can show you just how hard you can push—which can help you reach your physical potential, Johnson says.
On the flip side, though, the initial flood of adrenaline can leave you gassed if you use it to go out too fast. While rage running can feel like something runners refer to as the zone of optimal functioning—the place of flow state where you are both hyper-focused and intense and relaxed at the same time—the flood of blood chemicals only mimics that state if you’re missing the relaxation, Abrams says. Also, not feeling acute pain can cause harm. If your rage prevents you from noticing a sharp pain in your calf, for example, and you continue to bang out miles, you might be on your way to a running injury, causing damage to a vulnerable muscle, bone, or tendon.
“There is a difference between ignoring a minor muscle cramp and pushing to the level of a major tendon or bone issue,” Johnson says. If you can’t feel it, you cannot stop—which is what you are supposed to do when you feel a sudden, sharp, or throbbing pain.
That’s also why rage running works best as the exception rather than the rule of your training program. Rage running day after day can take a toll on your body, since you’re going too fast or too hard without allowing adequate recovery, says Johnson. It’s the same reason why you wouldn’t do a HIIT workout every day, or schedule a hard interval session the day after your long run—your body and muscle need time to recover and repair. Using your fury too frequently to fuel your training can lead to overuse injuries like muscle strains, tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures, or plantar fasciitis—or even to overtraining syndrome. You also don’t want to become what Petruzzelli calls “state-dependent,” which means you have to feel a certain way to have a good run.
How to make your rage run actually feel cathartic
Rage lends itself best to certain kinds of runs—namely, those that require short bursts of speed.
“[Anger] is not sustainable for long distances because it interferes with fine motor coordination, decision making, problem-solving, vision, and your ability to take in data,” says Abrams. “This can ruin pacing in longer runs.”
So try these tips on how to channel your rage into a run that offers an emotional release (and a boost to your training) without putting you at physical risk from overexertion:
Finally, remember, of course, that you still need to process the feelings after. Abrams likens it to cooking the perfect steak.
“To get that sear, you need to expose the meat to high heat,” he says. “But what happens if you don’t know how to control the heat? You burn the fucking thing up. Know that the heat can give you beautiful things. But if you cannot adjust the flame, you do damage. That’s what anger is.”
So own the anger you’re feeling now as a reasonable reaction to the state of the world, and if you’re compelled to run it out, go for it. Just consider running as one tool for coping with all the stresses we are handling right now—not necessarily a be-all, end-all solution. If you find you need much more than running to get through this moment, welcome to the club. That’s when connecting with a professional can be helpful. You can try to find a therapist, if you don’t yet have one. And since therapy can be hard or impossible to access for any number of reasons, keep in mind that there are other forms of mental health support out there too. From virtual support groups to mental health apps and more, hopefully you’re able to find the specific type of self-care that can help carry you through.