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Opposition leader Erin O’Toole promotes running for mental health benefits

The leader of the Conservative Party of Canada knows just how helpful running can be for an individual's mental and physical wellbeing

Photo by: Deb Ransom

Erin O’Toole has been a runner for a long time, but he says it has never been as important in his life as it is now. Daily runs help O’Toole de-stress and clear his mind ahead of his many busy days as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and he says exercise is and always has been critical in maintaining his mental wellness. O’Toole recently sat down with Canadian Running to talk about his time in the sport and how exercise is one of the most effective methods available to all Canadians to cope with mental health challenges.

Finding running 

O’Toole was a swimmer growing up, and in high school, he joined the cross-country team. With two of the three legs of a triathlon nailed down, he added cycling to his repertoire and jumped into the world of multi-sport racing. “By the time I was at military college in Kingston, there was a network of these little races,” he says.

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He continued racing triathlons after graduating from the Royal Military College of Canada, but as the years passed and his life got busier with family (he and his wife have a daughter and a son), work (he became a lawyer after serving in the military) and his eventual political aspirations, training for triathlons was too time-consuming. While he hung up his wetsuit and parked his bike in his garage, he stuck with running, and it’s still a passion for him today.

“Running is now it for me,” O’Toole says. He has run three marathons in his career (the Ottawa Marathon twice, the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon once), but like triathlon, he says he simply doesn’t have the time to properly train for a marathon, and he now sticks to running between 8K and 21K.

“I do love a good 10K,” O’Toole says. “You have to have a decent pace and manage it well, but it’s long enough so you can get into a flow.” Most mornings, he runs an 8K loop, and he makes sure to fit in a long run of about 10 miles every weekend. While he’s not using running as a means to be competitive so much as he is using it for fitness (both physical and mental), like most runners, O’Toole can’t stop himself from thinking about times and personal bests.

“I’m running a lot more now than I used to,” he says. “I’d love to see if I could get back to my 10K best, which was around 41 minutes.” Ultimately, though, running is a sort of meditation for O’Toole, and although that 10K PB might nag at him from time to time, it’s not the main reason he gets out of bed in the morning and hits the streets of Ottawa before starting work every day. 

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Running and mental health 

O’Toole has had a keen interest in mental health since leaving the military, and he has spent years dedicating time and energy to working on mental health initiatives, especially for veterans and first responders. In the past year of the pandemic, O’Toole says the rates of anxiety and depression in Canadians have been on the rise, and he doesn’t think these issues will simply disappear after COVID-19 is behind us. 

“We’re going to be dealing with some after-effects of the pandemic, even post-vaccine,” he says. “COVID is adding so much stress compared to the normal buzz of life.” O’Toole doesn’t recommend running as some cure-all trick that will magically wash away the mental health issues of anyone who tries it, but he says it can work wonders on a person’s psyche, which he knows from personal experience.

“For me,” O’Toole says, “fitness and running are critical, not just for physical health, but for stress management and mental wellness.” He has a few go-to routes that he hits (including one that he calls the “Flame Route” that takes him from his house to the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill and back in exactly 10K), and since he knows them so well, he can hit the autopilot switch, zone out and cruise around Ottawa while letting his mind wander. 

“During my long runs on the weekend, I take a lot of time to think about the week that passed and the week to come,” O’Toole says. “My days are scheduled to the minute, so I can look forward to the week and think about what issues might come up and what to work on.” His morning runs, he says, help him clear his mind and get focused before he starts his day. 

“I haven’t missed a day all year. That’s how I stay ahead of some of the stress,” he says. An additional benefit of running every morning is that it helps O’Toole maintain a healthy sleep schedule, which is not only paramount for his job, but also for anyone looking to improve their mental health. “I need to be able to fall asleep so I can get up early the next day. When I run in the morning, I’m tired at the end of the day, and I have no problem falling asleep.” 

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The ultimate race

Prospective races also grab O’Toole’s attention from time to time, even though he isn’t actively planning to compete anytime soon. While he said he would love to race the Around the Bay one day or get back into triathlons and give an Ironman a shot after he retires from politics, one race stands out above the rest, and while it’s unlikely to happen, it’s fun to imagine: O’Toole, leader of the Official Opposition, versus Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada and fellow runner. 

“I’m a politician. I never tell a lie,” O’Toole says. “I would win that race. In my time spent running and in the military, I’ve learned how to plan and set a goal to deliver. I’d deliver that win.” It sounds like a challenge, and it’s one running fans across the country would be eager to see.