Running out the Rage: the Relationship Between Running and Anger

It’s happened so many times in my 25 years of running. I’m mad as hell, flying along at 10k pace and working up an inner conflagration of self-righteous rage. I barely notice where I am or where I’m heading, my heart is pounding, my fists are clenched, and my thoughts scream:

CAN YOU BELIEVE HE SAID THAT or CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY DID THAT or THE WORLD IS TERRIBLE AND EVERYTHING IS SO UNFAIR!

Until BAM:

My foot hits something and I’m flying through the air, then my hands skid along the sidewalk until I come to a stop, gasping for breath and hoping I didn’t break anything.

Running while angry has such a great reputation for producing an incredible workout. But all the times I’ve tripped and fallen while running happened while I was in that mad as you-know-what place: mad at cancer, mad at the world, mad at myself. Mostly I’ve been lucky with these falls, ending up with just scraped knees or a slightly tweaked ankle. Once I broke my arm. Running while angryย might be a good way to guarantee you hit tempo pace, butย it’s not without serious risk.

But they go so well together, running and anger

I mean, we all get angry, right? Maybe someone violated one of your boundaries. Maybe you’ve been treated poorly. Maybe you’re angry at injustice inflicted on someone else. Maybe you just, like, generally cannot. Sometimes anger is even masking other feelings like shame, powerlessness, or extreme sadness, because it’s less painful to be mad than to feel those emotions.

Anger can be extra-problematic for women because we tend to be taught that anger is not feminine or that we’re not supposed to show aggression. That can make it hard to develop healthy ways to cope with such a strong emotion.

When we runners are angry, going for a run seems like a really good way to get out some of that aggressive, potentially destructive energy … and get in a great workout at the same time. “Running is cheaper than therapy” is a common saying for a reason. And physiologically, running and anger have a lot in common. Both involve elevated heart rate and blood pressure, adrenaline, and the “stress hormone” cortisol.

While angry running may help many people cope, it doesn’t work for me. I think it’s because when I’m angry I tend to ruminate, or obsess over the same few thoughts, often in a way that makes me feel somehow at fault for whatever has happened. That means I’m turning the anger inward, which is self-destructive, and I’m not present or mentally involved in what my body is doing.

The physiological changes brought on by running only escalate the anger. So I start running faster and getting angrier, don’t notice the tree root or pavement crack, and down I go. It seems improbably symbolic, but has happened so often that the link between my self-destructive anger and my running accidents can’t be denied.

happy runner
Running used to take me here. Not lately.

Mindfulness, anger, and running

So here’s the thing. Lately, all of my non-destructive anger-management techniques I use on the run to keep myself from biting the dust? They’re not working so well. I can’t stay on task.

Normally, I’d be all recognizing what I’m feeling, taking some time to really feel it, and then using little tricks while running to keep myself focused in the present rather than embroiled in my anger. One effective trick I learned from the book Zen and the Art of Running is to count every time my left foot hits the ground. I’ll count up to ten, then start again at one, until the run is done. Boring, but it works. My mind is always much clearer post-run and I’m ready to deal with whatever made me so mad in a productive, non-self-destructive way.

But for the moment, at least, the counting trick has stopped working. It turns out I can count and be pissed at the same time. Who knew? And you know what? Sometimes feeling the anger is valuable, especially when something fundamentally important to you is threatened, something that’s part of who you are. Lately, political things have inspired this kind of anger in me. Anger like this can be a valuable tool for action.

Figuring out a way to channel the anger into something constructive helps empower me, which in turns makes me feel less angry. When I fume about these things without turning the anger into action, all that happens is I end up falling down on my run. While running is empowering, it’s not acutely so in this circumstance. Not only does running on its own not make this anger go away, but then I’m angry I fell too.

Advanced Running and Anger

So where is that productive space between blissful meditation and blinding rage? And what does any of this have to do with running, really? I was thinking about it on my run today, after the stride-counting trick didn’t work at all to counter a day unwisely spent clicking on a lot of terrible news stories. Not wanting to get into the tripping-and-falling danger zone, I tried mantras, but words weren’t working either.

All sorts of unprintable things kept inserting themselves into my calming phrases. So then I simplified. I resorted to Ginger’s fall-back mindfulness techniques. I tried to feel the cold air, listen to my footsteps, and watch dark figures sliding in and out of view on the fog-blurred Berlin streets. Just senses. No thoughts.

The methodical left-right crunch of my shoes on the snow and the machine-like rhythm of my breaths catalyzed rage into logical thought and something close to optimism. I could feel it happening. By the end of my run, I had a list of the few actions I could take against the things that made me so mad. I felt calm, powerful, and strong. The world was exactly as f’ed up as it had been an hour ago, but I was different.

This realization isn’t new at all, of course. Runners know that our sport has the power to change us for the better. When you run every day, maybe you forget how magical it is. I have a feeling I’ll be holding on tight to that image of my body as a machine that changes the destructive into a source of power, action, and joy. I’m going to need it.

Do you try to run the anger out? Tell us about your relationship with anger and running.ย 

I'm a 41-year-old living in Berlin, Germany. I run because I can't not run. I write about training, mental training, momming, and the odd rant.

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10 comments

  1. My neck and back often hurt after I run angry. But, I do admit, I generally feel better after a run/stew sesh. But yes, lately I feel like I’m working through solutions to all the world’s problems and trying to understand what the heck is going on. It’s been a stressful time!

  2. Not going to lie: get me fired up and talking about something and my pace drops without me noticing… and I always feel better after an angry run rant. Endorphins up, pissed off feelings out = ahhhh :) Great post!

    1. A good rage gives me about a minute per mile! And I’ll feel better too for a little while, but it usually creeps back unless I channel my more evolved self, dig deep and deal with it like a good adult :)

  3. Ugh. I literally started running marathons this fall after the election because I didn’t know what to do with all my anxiety. The rage I can deal with, but I became SO anxious and running really helped calm me down. What didn’t help was listening to political podcasts while I ran…so I nixed that. I don’t know…it’s hard right now.

  4. Early on in my running, I used to run out anger and emotions far more. I wasn’t at a great place in life, and generally didn’t do much about it other than let it stew or try and let things go (neither are healthy- if you don’t like something…change it- if you can). Much of the training for my first 3 marathons was done out of anger- it led to some awesome runs, but typically too fast and also didn’t allow me to be consistent with training. I found it hard to find those gears unless I was angry or worked up- a vicious cycle because I didn’t want to be angry but I did want good race times and workouts. It took changing my life situation (a TON) and a lot of time and reflection to really change my relationship with angry running. Obviously it still happens from time to time but I think I have a bit of a better grasp on it these days.

  5. Sometimes running while angry can be exhilarating if it’s just a steady run, but I ruined speed work a few weeks ago by going out too strong and then blowing out. I can’t say I’ve ever broken any bones by running out my rage- dang! I’ve been sort of re-thinking the anger. Rather than going out like, “GD IT I’M SO PISSED OFF I HATE EVERYONE,” I think, “Running makes me a stronger person, and this run is going to confirm my strength.” with a lil side of “EFF OFF HATERS.”

  6. I find that as soon as I start running, I stop feeling angry. It’s like my brain can’t handle both emotions! If I’m feeling really angsty, trails will immediately calm me down โ€” it doesn’t hurt that you can’t think too much because you’re watching your feet. I don’t mind a venting session with a running pal, but if I’m on my own, I try to be mindful (word of the day!) of my thought patterns and acknowledge how I’m feeling and why, then shift my thinking to something else.