Ask Pete: Should I Train Hard During the Pandemic?
5 Reasons you need — and want — to maintain your training intensity.
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With no end in sight for the pandemic, should I keep training hard when races might not happen until next spring, or would it be better to scale back what I’m doing? – Josh
Short answer: Keep training. Physiologically, you can’t expect your body to maintain the running fitness you’ve developed if you stop training hard. Psychologically, hard training will help you de-stress and maintain a sense of normalcy during this pandemic. Most importantly, training hard is what we runners do. Here’s a synonym for “hard training”: training.
This is an easy one, Josh. Yes, you should keep training — easy days, hard days, long runs, repetitions, resistance training, time trials, all of it. As a lifelong runner, I’ve come to realize that running isn’t just a sport; it’s a lifestyle. And that lifestyle includes hard training days.
A few years back, I interviewed James Fries, M.D., the senior author of a 2008 Stanford study on running longevity that had tracked 538 runners for a quarter-century. When I asked about the runners’ secret to perseverance, Fries said, “It’s gotta be fun. It has to really contribute to the evening of that day or to the next day. You’ve got to really be enjoying it.”
Training hard is fun. Runners don’t brag about easy days. We talk about long runs into the hills, 400s on the track, mile repeats on the trail, and PRs on the road.
But in case you need a push out the door, here are five reasons to get your sweat on.
Reason 1: Use it or lose it
You wouldn’t water only a third of your garden and expect the other two thirds to grow. Likewise, you can’t train only a small percentage of your muscle fibers and energy-system capacity and expect to maintain fitness.
But don’t take my word for it. I asked Sean Brosnan, head cross country and track coach at Newbury Park High School, about his approach to the pandemic. Brosnan’s boys and girls teams won the 2019 California State Cross Country Championships. His boys added the 2019 National (NXN) Cross Country Championship. “We’re close to business as usual,” he says. “I like doing workouts twelve months a year — not always the same intensity, but we’re working.” With fall 2020 cross country postponed until winter 2021, Brosnan is selling his athletes on a professional approach to training. “In the pro world,” he says, “you run the USA Cross Country Championships in February.” That means training in summer and fall to assure success in winter.
Reason 2: Training hard doesn’t have to mean training 100%
I get it. With no specific race in sight, you don’t want to risk injury, overtraining, or an offseason fitness peak without the possibility of a payoff — a PR or good race performance. But training “hard” doesn’t mean you have to push the envelope. Slow down VO2max reps from 3K/5K pace to 10K pace. Limit your tempo runs to 20 minutes at half marathon pace. Take the edge off.
“I’ve found over the years that I can only sustain a competitive focus and the type of intense training that requires for a limited time — let’s say four balls-to-the-wall races a year,” says Christian Cushing-Murray, 2012 USA Masters Cross Country Champion and American men’s age 45-49 record-holder for 1500 meters (3:55.09). “So I don’t know if I want to use that amount of effort now with no races. For me, I think it’s healthier to stay within the 80-90% range for effort. I can still keep good fitness, but I’m not going to the well.”
Reason 3: It keeps you sane
Let’s be real. We runners go nuts when we can’t train. For us, training hard isn’t something we do to our bodies; it’s something our bodies can do for us.
“When March 12th hit, we had track meets, races planned, a season ahead of us,” says Tania Fischer, head track and cross country coach at Santa Monica High School (CA), founder and coach for the two-time USATF national cross country champions, The Janes, and 1996 Olympic Trials competitor in the 5000. “Personally, my times were dropping, and I had all this motivation. Then it was like getting an injury. Everything stopped, and my motivation went out the door.” Fischer had the blues. And her solution? “I had to run — not for the training, but for my mental health. I was feeling sad. I didn’t know what to do with my world. For me and a lot of the Janes, training was a way to get a feeling of normalcy.”
Reason 4: The sport needs you
If we don’t keep training hard — if we don’t stay optimistic and ensure we’re race-ready when the pandemic ends, ready to toe the line with our peers, and if we aren’t paving the way for up and coming runners — we just might find there isn’t much of a sport on the other side of this.
“I’ve lost about four good JV kids,” says Brosnan. “They just couldn’t take [the lack of organized training]. That’s what I worry about, the fresh-soph and JV. A lot of my kids are brand new to the sport, and they don’t know quite what it is yet.” Brosnan sets up Zoom meetings with his athletes, during which he attempts to convey both excitement about the sport and insight into the effort it takes to succeed. “I’ll hook up a race and have them all watch a sub-15-minute performance [for 5K XC] with me. My guys who run 15 minutes and my girls who run 17:30 already get it. But I want the younger kids — and their parents — to understand the sport.”
Reason 5: There’s more than one way to run a race
You’ve got a watch. You have access to a track, road, or trail. Pick a distance, start your timer, and, voila, you’re racing. Maybe you won’t run an official PR (ask Matt Fitzgerald about that), but you can definitely experience the effort of a race — and the joy or disappointment that follows.
Or you can take it a step further.
“After a couple weeks of training,” says Fischer, “it seemed like we needed something more.” So Fischer created a pair of virtual marathon relays: Together We Distance. Six members to a relay team, with legs varying from one to seven miles. Each athlete ran on their own and self-timed their leg. Then times were combined for a team’s marathon finish time. The entry fee was $30, with all money donated to a charity of the winning team’s choice — a Covid-19-related charity for the first event, a Black Lives Matter fund for the second. The initial all-women’s relay drew 50 teams and 300 runners. The second relay was open to women, men, mixed gender, and high school teams—the latter to give Fischer’s high school runners a competitive goal.
“Donating the entry fees to charity gave the event a purpose,” says Fischer. “It wasn’t only for the training and racing, but for the greater good.”
Training hard never comes with an effort-back guarantee. Even in the best of (non-pandemic) times, a race plan can get sabotaged by injury, illness, and you-name-it. This pandemic will end, and we’ll all toe another race start line. But that’s not why we train. Race results don’t make the runner. Running makes the runner. And training hard is just what we runners do.
Have a question for Pete? Shoot us a note.
Pete Magill is a running coach, world-class runner, and author. As a coach, Magill has led his masters clubs to 19 USATF National Masters Championships in cross country and road racing and has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. He holds multiple American and world age-group records and is a 5-time USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year. Magill is author of Fast 5K, SpeedRunner, Build Your Running Body, and The Born Again Runner.