Updated: Jun 2
Coronavirus. Covid-19. Global Pandemic. The global situation means that for many athletes, their 2020 goals have been scuppered. Be them the Olympic Games, a local half marathon or a fell race; it is a frustrating situation. The stress of a winter's grind going to 'waste' and the uncertainty of when racing will return may be thoughts of some runners who have had their races cancelled. However, many runners will see the positives and come back to racing stronger than ever with more motivation, fitness and a greater appreciation of their sport and life as a whole. As lockdown starts to ease I wanted to put down some thoughts on what I have observed in the athletic community and what I have felt myself as a runner.
For many people this pandemic has meant job losses, mental health deterioration, the loss of loved ones and a host of many other challenges. Therefore, it may seem trivial to mention the frustrations of the running season essentially being cancelled. However, the sport is a huge part of many people's lives and identities. For example, I had committed my summer to full time running after working a winter season in the Alps aiming to develop further and arrived back in the UK just as lockdown began and races were cancelled. Every winter run in the snowy mountains and through blizzards was fuelled by the thoughts of summer racing. But in hindsight, they were also fuelled by something greater: a genuine love of the process.
Despite the obvious negatives for athletes such as cancelled races, reduced access to training facilities, training groups and potential economic troubles I believe there are ways to see silver linings in the current climate. Firstly, it is the perfect opportunity to focus on the process and not the outcome. With target races put on hold, it is a great time to enjoy running without the pressure of pending races. Exploring new routes, new training methods and enjoying the miles are all parts of the process that should be truly enjoyed. A lot of runners will come back stronger and more appreciative of competition. Some will come out of this lockdown very fit. They will have made real, not marginal gains through enjoying the process. being creative, exploring and going longer. Perhaps people will be more willing to take risks in races now that we realise that there won't always be a next race on the horizon. I know I certainly will be.
By default we tend to be forward-looking, goal-oriented, results-focused beings. We are wired for a discontentment with the present and are socially conditioned to constantly strive for a better future. Outcomes are easier to measure, evaluate and compare than the process of training in the midst of daily life. As a result, a lot of runners tend to compare their daily training to others and don't truly enjoy the process. They train too hard on their easy days and not hard enough on their hard days. They don't listen to their body and enjoy relaxed running in nature. This is largely because it is easy to constantly be aware of what everyone is doing as a result of GPS watches beeping splits every KM or mile; social media platforms like instagram normalise perfection in an unhealthy manner, and platforms like Strava can turn every run into a race for some runners.
However, by focussing on the process rather than the outcome there are a number of benefits that can be truly explored during the pandemic. I believe that runners can once again fall in love with running for running's sake. To explore, to relieve stress, to seek solitude and ultimately to enjoy the movement without the stress of a short term race should be the prime motivators. You can also experiment in this period - try new routes, go off the beaten path, try new sessions. You can enjoy running creatively. Life is lived in the present and not the future, and happiness is a process, not a place.
In essence, there has been no better time to practice being intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated for the committed runner. For me, this has come in the form of making my strava activities private and not using the platform for anything other than recording my own training as a backup to my hand written training diary. I want to thoroughly make sure I'm doing all this training and racing for the right reasons. I have been using this lockdown period to think about where I am and where I want to be and coming off strava was a logical place to start. This has also been enjoyable and I started to realise that the kudos of strava was just another unwanted dopamine addiction. I have been doing a lot more runs without a watch and my easy runs with my watch in my pocket. For recovery loops in the woods where I know the distance and elevation I have found this a way to really listen to the body and enjoy nature in a free way. I have been striving for what is known as harmonious passion as opposed to obsessive passion (see Steve Magnus and The Passion Paradox). Running without the burden of technology has been freeing and has helped me realise that why I started running was because it made me feel free. It made me feel like an animal when running in the hills and a it makes me feel truly present and connected to nature and myself.
For those that truly love running for the intrinsic rewards there has likely never been a better opportunity to build the all important aerobic base. If comparing the process of running to, for example, gardening then we train through building our endurance capacities during the off season as we do the all important foundational garden work. Now is a good time to do the spade work such as simply getting in the miles. It could also be the perfect opportunity to work on weaknesses. For example, I am aiming to utilise this period to develop my basic speed and ultimately improve my 5k and 10k flat speed. In the long term I believe that having a fast 5k ability will bring up my future marathon and long distance trail and mountain running goals. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, it is time to use running as a spiritual practise and as time dedicated to yourself in this crazy, busy world. If new to running it may take a bit longer, but when you have the endurance capacity, running can be an extremely relaxing and meditative practise. Running should be time dedicated to yourself where you are forced to spend time alone in your head. This is something that I believe people need in this modern world where we are constantly 'switched on'.
I think that it is also a time to develop better habits as a runner and listen to your body. For me, this has been trying to focus on high quality recovery to truly absorb the training. The reality is that my main goals for 2020 including Yorkshire Three Peaks and Snowdonia Marathon have been cancelled. Therefore, I don't want to take any risks but aim for a solid training period to come back stronger than ever to racing. I believe that real competition is still the ultimate test of an athlete because you pit yourself against others and there is no hiding.
However, I think that with the right mindset, running can be used as a meditative practise; a way to explore; a way to feel truly connected to nature; a way to escape the stresses of the modern world and as a way to see what you as an individual are truly capable of in a sporting sense. Running can be something to rely on during this tough period. It can be a certain time dedicated to yourself in very uncertain times. Running can be living and I encourage anyone reading this to go for a run in the woods and take off your GPS watch and listen to your body and connect to nature.