Sports Psychologists’ Advice on How Runners Can Cope These Days

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Sports Psychologists’ Advice on How Runners Can Cope These Days

Even the most even-keeled athlete is facing moments of anxiety and demotivation — as well as happiness and gratitude — during these ever-changing times. The constant ups and downs around life and running are totally normal, but not easy to handle while trying to work, train and be present.

Here’s what two sports psychologists want runners to know about these emotions:

ANXIOUS

Anxiety is one of the most common emotions floating around, thanks to global uncertainty about a return to normalcy — and, for runners, what a return to racing looks like. “Right now, general anxiety about everything going on in the world has increased for most people,” says Danelle Kabush, PhD, a registered clinical counselor and mental performance consultant. “That means any anxiety you have about running or training is going to feel even more intense as a result.”

The advice: Be less critical of yourself right now. Getting out for a run is a win, and if you can manage to do your intervals as well, that’s great. But if you feel like an easy run would ease your mind more than a hard session, let yourself take a guilt-free recovery run instead.

LETHARGIC

“A lot of athletes compete because they need this external ‘carrot’ of the next race to keep their discipline and structure,” Kabush explains. “So overall, I’m finding a lot of athletes are struggling to train and are feeling lethargic. With no racing, they have no reason to keep training — or at least, that’s how they’re feeling.”

The advice: Kabush suggests signing up for a 2021 event (or even earmarking the funds for it if registration isn’t open), or setting up some kind of virtual race or challenge with a few friends. Adding in some accountability with your crew can help kick past the lethargy, especially if you’re in an area where you can actually run outdoors with people again.

FRUSTRATED

“Frustrating as the current situation is, it’s important to not deny that it’s frustrating,” says sports psychologist Alison Pope-Rhodius, PhD. “It’s healthy to feel frustrated; it’s healthy to feel sad. It’s totally normal to feel all these emotions.” However, don’t let your frustration wreck your day.

The advice: Pope-Rhodius urges athletes to think through small things you can do throughout the day to feel a bit more in control, from physical things like shifting your workout to early morning to ensure it gets done, to just pausing for a moment for a few deep breaths, to reminding yourself to put a positive spin on something that’s tough right now.

DISCONTENTED

Don’t be surprised if suddenly, everything in your life feels just a bit lacking: You might be feeling a bit of discontent with your pace, your progress, your body … These feelings of ‘not being enough’ are common right now. “Athletes can easily become focused and fixated on really specific metrics,” says Kabush. This might be weight, it might be the minutes it takes you to run a mile or do the big climb in town — if you notice yourself obsessing over a number and always coming up short, you’re not alone.

The advice: “You may need to take a break from numbers: Don’t get on the scale. Don’t record your heart rate or mileage — or record it but don’t look at it,” says Kabush. Stepping back from the metrics might help you focus on what you do enjoy about running.

LONELY

Sheltering in place is inherently solitary, so it’s normal to feel a little lonely. Sure, we may not be able to see friends, do group runs or race IRL, but don’t sink into more solitude. Instead: Reach out.

The advice: “If you are one of those people who really needs that social injection, figure out how to get that social piece,” says Pope-Rhodius. “Even introverts might need to have group WhatsApp chats or Zoom hangouts occasionally. Even if you can’t run with friends, you can keep checking in with each other and keep each other accountable.”

UNMOTIVATED

“A lot of racers I know are in ‘holiday mode’ right now because of restrictions, or they’ve moved home with family from school, and are feeling like there just isn’t a lot of reason to stick to structured training,” says Kabush. “That feeling might have been reasonable for the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s so important to try to get back to healthier habits and regular routines now.”

The advice: If you’re struggling with motivation to run but feeling healthy and still moving (walking, riding a bike) plenty, then time off isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re feeling unmotivated and you’re also feeling unhealthy, it might be time to lace up those shoes. “You may not be able to be as productive as normal,” Kabush adds, “But you don’t want to let everything go and feel even worse as a result.” Motivation is also cyclical, typically: the more you run, the more you enjoy running and are motivated to do it.

HYPER-MOTIVATED

The flip-side of not being motivated is being excessively motivated — and many runners have been swinging between the two feelings since quarantine began. Within the course of a day, a week or a month, it’s normal to feel extremely motivated and ready to tackle huge miles and add strength training and start a diet and clean out your closet, etc. And then feel like you can ditch it all and take a nap 20 minutes later.

The advice: Kabush warns against going too hard, too fast, since that type of overloading can quickly lead to injury or the need to take more time off. “There’s a balance between training enough to stay focused and progressing versus overloading and overdoing it,” she says. You may find a training plan or working with a coach helps keep you on the road to progress, not burnout.


READ MORE > MANTRAS MADE FOR RUNNERS BY RUNNERS


STRESSED (FOR NO SPECIFIC REASON)

“Everybody’s stress levels are going to be slightly elevated with what’s happening,” says Pope-Rhodius. “If you’re normally a 5 on a 1–10 scale of stress, you’re likely a 7–8 most of the time now. Our baseline of stress is higher, so it’s more important to be aware and be kind to yourself. You have to find what works and is realistic for you to lower stress.”

The advice: Focus on being kind to yourself. That may not be a long run or getting in your full workout, but maybe a walk around the block listening to your favorite playlist would help. Think: ‘I am grateful I have this opportunity,’ and then go make the most of it.”

GRATEFUL

If you’re able to continue to train and work and your family is safe, you may be feeling extreme amounts of gratitude about your situation. Pay it forward. “Being compassionate is really helpful toward others,” says Pope-Rhodius.

The advice: “If there’s any way that we can help those people who can’t train, let’s do that and give them some social support. Maybe you can send them a gift or make time to chat with them or run an errand for them. As endurance athletes, it’s very easy for us to get super tunnel-visioned, and I think right now is a really great time to turn your lens around and focus on the ‘giving back’ side of things.”

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.

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