With continued concern surrounding the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), and virtually every race in the world that was scheduled for March and April canceled or postponed, many athletes are beginning to fret the possible cancellation of their goal races even through summer, leading to heightened anxiety for many.
A Trio of Conditions
Anxiety thrives when certain conditions are met, a notion we find true in both sport and in life. One of the following alone can trigger an anxiety reaction, and as factors merge together you can expect anxiety to grow accordingly.
- Uncertainty. When we are not clear of what may occur we are likely going to start speculating about possible outcomes. Speculating can begin the process of anxiety. The unpredictability leads us to further our speculation by examining a wide range of options. Each option creates sub-options, and soon we can find ourselves engaged in mental gymnastics, weighing a number of different possible scenarios.
- Lack of Control. When we feel like we don’t have options for managing or controlling the outcome, we often spiral. Not feeling as though we have control can be a major tipping point for anxiety. This response can be bad enough during the week or two leading up to an important race in normal conditions, when we become overly focused on the weather forecast or how a minor injury is recovering. In the case of this virus, we may start looking for control in many different ways.
- Threat to Something of Value. We will only experience anxiety when something we value is being threatened, or is perceived to be threatened. In many ways anxiety serves an adaptive, healthy response to protect what is important. We value our events, having spent months training in preparation. And when our moment to execute on race day becomes threatened, it can be felt as a personal affront to all our efforts and sacrifices, not to mention our identities.
Standing Squarely in the Crosshairs
For many athletes, we find ourselves staring squarely at the above constellation of concerns as we forecast the fate of our spring and summer racing season. No doubt, there is little to no predictability about the course of this virus, or the necessary reaction from race organizers about maintaining public safety in response. We find ourselves in a position of lacking control in any of this; we certainly can’t directly control the spread of this condition nor the response from our chosen race officials. This can lend itself to a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. And we place significant importance not only on our race outcomes, but also in being able to participate in the first place. Subsequently, we take the possibility of not being able to run very personally.
I stand with you. Boston 2020 was scheduled to be my third time racing this event, and I’ve come to understand just how meaningful racing is for so many, myself included. Given the current circumstances, here’s what we can do about this to ensure we are managing effectively.
Taking Control of Our Reactions
A cancelled race gives us an opportunity, with broad strokes, to either engage with gratitude or to double down in frustration.
- Empathize with the race directors. Understand that the decision to cancel a major event affecting thousands to tens of thousands of participants is not taken lightly. Race directors and city officials are in a difficult position to ensure safety of all participants and the general community when hosting events. Races of significant magnitude are a yearlong production, most of which the majority of athletes only see for a few hours on race day. If a race is cancelled, then race officials have considered every possible angle to hold the event in a safe manner. They hate cancelling just as much if not more than you do. But they are doing so for your safety, the safety of their community and the safety of the greater public in general. Approach this decision with respect, empathy and kindness for the difficult decision these officials had to make.
- Step back to reflect and appreciate. The cancellation, or threat of cancellation, can provide a moment of reflection on how important running and participating in organized racing is in our lives. From the perspective of “anxiety only occurs when something you care about is threatened,” a cancelled race can help us understand just how meaningful running and racing is to us. This gives us an opportunity to realign and assess our underlying why; why running holds an important place in our lives, why we sign up for events in the first pace, why pushing our limits in endurance sports leads to improved quality and connection in life. This larger perspective can help put our training in a context where we can still appreciate the benefits and be grateful for the opportunities even if the specific race is cancelled.
- Control what’s controllable. Anxiety is an attempt to control something that is inherently outside of our control, so focus on what you can control. Keep training. If your race hasn’t been cancelled, maintain focus on the day-to-day process. If your race has been cancelled, take the fitness you’ve forged training and find a local event still being held—even if it’s not your desired distance. Broaden your perspective and recognize that your event will very likely be back on the calendar again next year, and you’ll once again have the opportunity to run with renewed perspective—if you can find meaning in the process rather than the outcome.
- Know how anxiety builds, and head it off. Anxiety will often increase from media exposure, including social media. Limit your media consumption. Pick one or two trusted resources that you will obtain information from regarding coronavirus in general, and the impact on the running community more specifically, and be diligent about screening out all others. Limit your time spent consuming media on a daily basis. I typically recommend two scheduled sessions throughout the day, each lasting no longer than five minutes. Five minutes is really all you need to obtain the latest information about the virus. Anything longer is likely to spiral up anxiety. This includes limiting social media and online message boards, which is likely to contain misinformation or focus on other people describing their own anxiety or opinions on the matter.
- Breathe. We know that breathing helps us manage the anxiety response on both a physiological and mental level. One minute of slow, deliberate deep breathing helps mitigate the anxiety response. I encourage people to utilize deep breathing throughout the day as needed, but deliberately at least three times (in the morning, afternoon and evening) where you take three to five minutes to focus on creating a sense of internal calm. This will help greatly.
If your race is cancelled, allow yourself to be disappointed and frustrated. It’s OK to be sad and upset if you’re not able to run. It means you care. But don’t wallow. Don’t let the cancellation rob your spirit and take you down for more than a day or two.
Anxiety functions to help us seek information and control what may happen. But the problem is that this response can run amok, and if anxiety spirals out of control it can become problematic. Races of all distances and field sizes are likely going to be cancelled in the foreseeable future. I only hope we can bond together to approach this with shared humility, gratitude and internally-chosen fortitude.
Dr Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, Colorado, specializing in human performance and athlete mental health. He is an 11-time marathoner, with six BQs and a personal best of 2:57. His newly launched course, Unlock Your Athletic Potential is a masterclass at understanding the nuances of mind and body for athletes of all ability levels.