In a World Out of Control, How Should You Think About Your Running?
15 top coaches offer runners their best advice for training in the time of coronavirus.
The world seems to be careening out of control, with illness and economic shocks all around us, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Every aspect of our lives is affected, including our running.
What to do? We asked more than a dozen professional coaches to offer their advice. Here’s what they told us.
Focus on correcting a weakness.
Runners often race from one training buildup to the next without taking enough time to recharge and/or work on weaknesses. This is the perfect time to break that bad habit, says coach Jeff Gaudette of RunnersConnect.net. If you’re always building endurance, reduce your mileage, and do more speedwork, strides, and fast hill sprints. If you’re frequently injured, break the cycle now by doing the strength work, stretching, foam rolling, or other therapy as needed. “This is the perfect time to make lemonade from the lemons we’ve all been handed,” says Gaudette. “If you do that now, you’ll make yourself a much better runner for the future.”
Focus on running’s mental benefits.
This is a highly stressful situation, no doubt about it. The last thing anyone needs is to make their running an additional stress, which is what can happen when you focus too much on miles, times, paces, and the like. Now, more than ever, use your running as a calming, peaceful, personal activity away from the surrounding chaos. “Give yourself more flexibility on your runs,” says coach Mark Hadley of RunDoyen.com. “Go shorter, longer, faster, slower, or whatever you feel that you need on a given day. Running can be a great stress reliever. Use it that way.”
Run your race anyway.
Not literally. Definitely don’t go run on a road race course that would have had police protection and traffic control on a normal event date. Instead, head over to your favorite venue or running roads, and do a simulated race there. Taper beforehand. Wear your racing gear. Bring a running friend or two (just stay 6 feet apart). Give it your best, and walk away satisfied. Then, make a forward-looking plan. “The path ahead is uncertain,” admits coach Tom McGlynn of RunCoach.com, “but we’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So make a pact with a running friend to get together at a July 4th race, or maybe a Labor Day race. When we keep moving, things almost always get better.”
Try a new type of workout.
Chances are, you’ve been in a groove for quite some time. Or is it a rut? You probably do pretty much the same workouts week after week. Long runs? Of course. Tempo runs? Got ’em covered. A bit of speed here and there? Sure. And those are all good: They belong in every runner’s workout toolkit. But now, break out and try something new.
Atlanta Track Club coach and former Olympian Amy Begley favors “timed hill repeats.” Find a nearby hill, and count how many times you can run up it, and jog down, in 30 or 40 minutes. Go modest the first time, then crank it up a little a week or two later. “See if you can get up and down one more time on the second workout,” says Begley. Don’t continue this for more than six weeks or so, but change things up by switching to another hill—shorter, longer, whatever—and starting over again.
Get Ready for Boston Marathon, Take 2.
Coach Greg McMillan of McMillanRunning.com has coached thousands of Boston Marathon runners in the last decade, telling them how to train for uphills and down, wear sunscreen, and start moderate to finish strong. This month, he faced a new challenge—how to adjust training schedules from a mid-April peak to a mid-September peak. He explains his thinking in this YouTube video. In short: Do a mid-April 10K to half-marathon race simulation, return to base training for four weeks, add four to six weeks of hill training and speed prep, then devote 10 weeks to your final Boston push. “You’ll need to deal with training through the summer heat and humidity at some point,” he acknowledges. “But that comes later. For now, this will get you going on a new path.”
Get real. Hone your sense of perspective.
Races have been canceled, some entry fees won’t be refunded, and you might never get that t-shirt or finisher’s medal. But guess what? You’re still healthy, and you can still go out for a run or hop on the basement treadmill. Many others have it a lot worse. “I get upset when I see runners complaining to races and race directors,” says coach John Honerkamp of RunKamp.com. “I mean, there are people sick and dying both here in the U.S. and around the world.” Honerkamp has been telling his runners to stay connected with others through Strava and various social media, and to sign up for one of the many virtual races that have sprung up. Some are even raising funds for coronavirus causes.
Take a two-week “mini break.”
Runners are incredibly good at setting high goals and sticking with the training program. Conversely, some are challenged when the rug is pulled out from underneath them: “What am I supposed to do now?” RunDoyen.com coach Lindsay Flanagan, 12th in the recent Olympic Marathon Trials, believes it’s time for a “mini break, because it’s just not feasible to continue training hard all the way through to the fall.”
She suggests cutting your training by 40 to 50 percent for several weeks, (“You won’t lose any fitness, and your body will thank you when you ramp up again.”), practicing sound social distancing, skipping the gym and downloading free YouTube yoga videos to follow at home, or listening to a new running podcast or two. “Remember, this tough period won’t last forever,” Flanagan says. “Stay positive and stay healthy.”
Serious runners often complain that they don’t have enough time for strength work and all the other alternative exercises they know they’re supposed to do. “Hmm… how about now?” asks coach Karen Dunn of StrengthenYourStride. Bonus: You don’t need to go to a gym to do this. Some of the best moves—such as planks, side planks, squats, lunges, glute bridges, and more—can be done at home with just your body weight. “Any time you have an interruption from your normal training is a great time to do more cross training,” says Dunn. “And you might find out it’s the missing factor to take your running to the next level.”
Train for life.
“We humans are goal oriented, and when one of our goals gets canceled, we freak out,” notes RunDoyen.com coach and Olympic Marathon Trials runner Addi Zerrenner. What then? She advises a different mindset: Look at your running not as preparation for a race, but as preparation for life. After all, running makes you healthier and stronger in so many ways, including improved immunity. It can also “provide a wave of normalcy at a very unsettling time,” adds Zerrenner. “Just because a race is canceled doesn’t mean that our health and wellness are canceled.”
Be less fierce.
With so few races available and no clear notion of when they will return, there’s no need to worry about maintaining intensity. And there are many reasons to scale back. One of those: Too many hard workouts can actually decrease your immunity. As a result, coach and Olympic Marathon Trials runner Neely Gracey of NeelyRuns.com is advising her clients to reduce their speed workouts to one a week, and also to decrease the length and intensity of their long runs. “This isn’t the time for peaking and burnout,” she notes. “With all the stresses everyone is facing, overdoing things in training will surely not bode well.”
Take your watch off.
Life is moving so fast now, and in so many uncertain directions. It’s a great idea to slow down on the run. The best and surest way to do this is to take your watch off. Go totally by feel, and keep the feel on “good, relaxed.” Instead of trying to go farther, turn back sooner. Cut your run short; that will keep your immunity on high in case you need it. “This is a good time to take your foot off the gas pedal,” advises veteran runner and running coach Hal Higdon. “Take walking breaks, or more walks than usual. Don’t think about PRs; focus on protecting your health and that of those around you.”
Add mindfulness to your life practices.
Sure, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what increased mindfulness can do for your running (and the rest of your day). But there’s no doubting the number of people drawn to the simple, zen-like practice, or that it makes particular sense when you feel storms swirling all about you.
Ryan Hall says, “Run the mile you’re in.” A short phrase now adopted by countless other runners. Denver-based marathoner and human performance psychologist Justin Ross thinks this is the perfect moment to “begin a mindfulness-based practice.” He adds: “Mindfulness has been shown to help both with performance and anxiety management, and we could all use a little anxiety management these days.”
Read a motivational book.
It’s a good time to practice various forms of slow living, and book reading is one of the best. You can read a running book if you want, but don’t make it one of those “how to” tomes. Instead pick an inspiring story like those about Meb Keflezighi, Kathrine Switzer, Louie Zamperini, or the always provocative running-zoology-biographical musings of Bernd Heinrich. In an Instagram post with 10 great ideas, RunDoyen.com coach Brad Hudson suggests reaching outside your favorite sport. “Read a motivating book,” he says. “Something with someone overcoming long odds.” He likes the Lincoln biography. You could also pick Hamilton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, or a pioneer in any of your favorite fields.
Spread your wings. Run free.
You don’t have a race coming up in a month, you don’t need to cram in a few more key workouts, and you don’t need to hit a certain mileage total this week. There’s disappointment here, but also opportunity. Coach Jon Green, who guided Molly Seidel to a second-place finish in the recent Olympic Marathon Trials, suggests we recall the day we first mastered bicycle-riding. Remember how the world seemed endless, brimming with new adventures down around the next corner? “Runners should celebrate the freedom they have when they don’t need to follow a schedule,” Green says. “It’s a great time to explore the sport in new ways and simply to have fun.”
Heal your injuries and your community.
Every runner has a niggling little sore muscle or two, and this is a great time to tend to yours. The racing pressure is off, so rehab with the strength or mobility work you need, suggest coach Jim Bumbulsky of Ritual.run. Don’t stop there. Every family, colleague, and community has raw edges now—people in need. Since runners are fitter and healthier than most, this gives us the chance to serve. “I want all runners to think about how they can best support others through this time,” says Bumbulsky. “Be a great person first, and then think about your own running after that.”
Authors Burfoot and Kislevitz recently published Runspirations: Amazing Stories, Timeless Wisdom and Motivational Quotes to Help You Run Stronger Every Day.