At this time of year, sunlight is in short supply and we’re more likely to prefer hibernating at home to doing HIIT training – particularly if it’s cold and wet and you’ve had a long day at work. Although it’s common to feel down during the colder months, for some people, this can escalate into something more: “If you feel persistently low and lethargic during winter and perk up as spring arrives, you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD),” says Dr Steve Iley, medical director at Bupa. “The causes of SAD aren’t fully understood,” says Dr Iley, “but it may be related to changes in the amount of daylight during autumn and winter. Light stimulates the brain’s hypothalamus, which controls mood and sleep. In people with SAD, the lack of light may prevent it from working properly, leaving them feeling permanently down. As light levels change, your body clock can be disrupted which can also lead to symptoms. And, as with all form of depression, SAD can be caused by difficult life events or physical illness, too,” she says.
Here the experts give their top tips for boosting your energy during winter so that you’ll still feel up for a run, whatever the weather.
1. Get some light relief
Light therapy, which involves between one and four hours per day of exposure to very bright light, usually in the form of a light box, can be an effective treatment for the symptoms of SAD, according to Hayley Jarvis, sport community programmes manager at mental health charity Mind (mind.org.uk). However, Dr Iley suggests that you speak to your GP before buying one (they’re not available on the NHS) as they’re a short-term treatment and it may be that medication or talking therapies will also be needed.
2. Strive for more than five
“Eating more fruit and vegetables can lift your mood and energy, but you need seven to eight portions a day for a significant boost,” says registered nutritionist Anita Bean (anitabean.co.uk), author of Food For Fitness (Bloomsbury Sport, £16.99). “A New Zealand study found when people ate this amount of fruit and veg (excluding juice and dried fruit), they felt calmer, happier and more energetic.”
3. Remain active
Research shows that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression as it stimulates mood-ehancing endorphins, says Jarvis. “Exercising for at least 20 minutes a day can be very effective in lifting mood, increasing energy levels and improving appetite and sleep.
4. Ring the changes
Altering your normal route, running somewhere different or running with a friend can all really make a difference to how you feel about training in winter, according to Miles. “Making a playlist of upbeat music can help combat the symptoms of SAD and motivate you to get out and run.”
5. Be more social
“Spending more time with loved ones, friends and family and concentrating on the good things you have in your life can lessen the effects of SAD and assist you to feel more able to manage the winter months,” says integrative therapist Joshua Miles (joshuamilestherapy.com).
6. Run in the sun
Findings from the University of Essex show that getting into an outdoor space can improve mental health, boost self-esteem, improve physicalhealth and reduce social isolation. Dr Iley agrees that getting outdoors is key: “Even though it might be cold and the weather may be bad, it’s important to still go outside every day. Try to go for a run during your lunchbreak, rather than in the dark mornings or evenings, to make the most of the natural daylight.” Booking a winter-sun holiday is also a guaranteed mood-booster.
7. Up your omegas
“Oily fish contains omega 3 fatty acids that are essential to keep the brain functioning properly,” says Bean. People with low levels are more prone to depression and low mood.
8. Sidestep stress
“If you find this time of year difficult, try to schedule stressful events such as changing jobs, moving home, redecorating or getting married for the summer months,” says Jarvis.
9. Be kinder to yourself
“If you can’t manage running one morning, don’t be too hard on yourself and instead make sure you return to your running schedule in a few days’ time,” says Miles. “And find time to do things that make you happy.” Jarvis concurs: “Aim to rest, relax and do pleasant activities in the winter,” she says. “Perhaps pamper yourself with a massage, or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind.”
10. Try a talking cure
Engaging with talking therapies can provide you with a warm and welcoming space where you can openly discuss the low feelings you’re experiencing without worrying that you’re burdening your loved ones. “A therapist can help you identify the underlying reasons behind SAD and help you develop ways to manage feeling low,” says Miles. If you think you may be suffering from SAD, it’s important to consult your GP, so a formal diagnosis can be made, as it can be confused with other types of depression.
If you think you may be suffering from SAD, it’s important to consult your GP, so a formal diagnosis can be made, as it can be confused with other types of depression.