The ongoing pandemic has affected us all in ways big and small. Google searches for elastic waistband clothing have increased 120% since quarantine began. And we’ve all heard someone making a darkly comedic reference to “gaining the quarantine 15.”
Runners, of course, are not immune to sliding into something less than their best shape. Finding time to run has become more difficult for front-line workers or parents trying to juggle work and home responsibilities. Anyone who was training for a race might be less motivated because most races are canceled. (And virtual races just don’t pack the same punch.) When the world is closed, we find ourselves staying at home more, which means we’re not getting those little movements like biking to work or just walking from the parking lot.
If any of this sounds familiar, we’re happy to inform you that you’re not alone. We spoke with two experts about why runners might be falling behind right now, and what you can do to get back on track. Here is what they told us.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
The mental struggle is real. “We are living in uniquely stressful times, and this can affect the motivation of even the most dedicated runners,” says Tom Holland, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, who has competed in a number of marathons, ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons. “Many runners are finding it extremely difficult to get out on the road or back on the treadmill due to psychological factors that negatively affect their normal workout routines.”
Indeed, if COVID-19 has directly affected you or your family, you know how stressful this devastating and contagious illness can be. Ditto for those impacted by the economic fallout, whether it’s a lost job, reduced hours or salary, or a new level of work-related insecurity. For those fortunate enough to be impacted only indirectly, witnessing the devastation on the news and on social media can be overwhelming. As we know, stress impacts the body in a number of different ways, from inspiring poor diet choices to reducing the quality of sleep — and those tend to be self-reinforcing, creating a vicious cycle of bad choices. Even those not stuck in that vicious cycle might simply be running less.
If that sounds familiar, don’t despair. “Be kind to yourself and don’t judge success based on your potentially declining mileage,” says Breeanne Baker, PhD, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist at the University of Missouri. “Even if it is a quick mile, hill workout or brief homemade circuit in your living room, try to never skip two days in a row. This will help to maintain positive training adaptations you made pre-pandemic and can provide some much needed variety in your routine that has been shown to reduce injury rates.”
Making time is a challenge. Baker puts it succinctly: While some people adapting to working from home have found new pockets of time for working out or running — time that might have once been spent on a lengthy commute, for example — others are confronting newfound obstacles. “Parents and/or caretakers, especially, may have a compounded workload during COVID-19 and feel pressured to cut out personal time for both physical and mental well-being in order to manage new time constraints,” she says.
Those pinched for time can use the advice she mentions above. Specifically, make time for a quick workout or run, even if it’s not the duration you were used to prior to quarantine. Whatever you’re able to do, consider marking your progress in other ways besides weight gain or loss. “Especially in times when motivation may be low and folks’ access to safe exercise may be limited due to COVID-19, I would not encourage a specific type of run for improving health or weight gain,” she says. “My three main keys are consistency, progression and variety. For the new runner starting slow, being consistent is paramount to their long-term success. Walking or jogging even 1 mile, three days a week, is a good way to start. In time you can progress by increasing your frequency (days/week), mileage, speed, intensity, and introduce new training modalities such as hill training, backward running, HIIT, other forms of cardiovascular exercise, and resistance training. This variety will also help to reduce overuse injuries, combat burnout and boredom, and help to build overall health.”
Again, part of the battle is mental. “Especially now due to COVID-19, mental health for most may feel like a roller coaster,” Baker says. “Working from home has amplified many emotions for most but running and/or consistent exercise of any form can serve as vital quiet thinking time. Time spent exercising can be cultivated as a stress-free space, a place where you can shut out the crazy world and just focus on you.”
GET MOVING (EVEN IF IT’S NOT RUNNING)
We’re getting even more sedentary. The thing about going places — to work, to a friend’s house, to a restaurant — is that you, well, go places. Not going places often means a sedentary lifestyle, which can be hazardous to your health. “While regular exercise plays an important role in weight-management, NEAT is extremely important as well,” says Holland, referring to Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. “These are the calories you burn through moving all day long — walking your dog, doing housework, playing with your kids, even fidgeting. Quarantine has decreased this type of daily activity for many, significantly decreasing daily caloric expenditure while adding to gradual weight gain.”
Resuming or seeking out similar activities helps. If you don’t have a dog, pretend you do, and go for a midday walk around the block. (Note: We can’t be held responsible for any consequences if you actually fake dog ownership to your boss and colleagues.) Take the kids for a bike ride or embark on a neighborhood scavenger hunt. If a neighborhood restaurant offers curbside delivery, walk or bike there instead of taking the car. The point is, find ways to mix up your routine so “exercise” becomes just another word for the stuff you’d ordinarily do.
TRACK HEART RATE, NUTRITION AND SLEEP
As Baker says, “training goals are met both on the road and in the kitchen,” and the kitchen is now just a few feet away from where many of us are working. “If self-discipline in the kitchen is an issue, try to create plans for yourself that map out your daily meals, give yourself some snacks, and be sure to drink plenty of water. I personally have more discipline when I prepare meals in advance, so I can take them with me to work or quickly grab them from the fridge for a well-portioned meal.”
That all said, modest weight gain is not necessarily a sign of a lapse in health, and weight loss is not the only way to measure improvement. Instead, Baker mentions looking at three things: Heart rate, nutrition and sleep. Diet is a factor in each of those things, but only one part of the complex puzzle that is your body. Heart rate reflects your cardiovascular health, or what shape your heart, lungs and muscles are in. “Long endurance runs are not the only way to improve cardiovascular function,” Baker says. “High-intensity interval training (HIIT), resistance training and circuits are also great ways to safely stress the cardiovascular system and begin to see positive changes.”
For nutrition, Baker notes that changing what you eat isn’t a diet, it’s a habit. She recommends starting with a four-week plan.
- Week 1 is all about keeping a food log (You can track your meals via MyFitnessPal.) “Folks who consistently know how much they are consuming lose two times the weight compared to folks who don’t,” she notes.
- Week 2 is about hydration. “I encourage folks to keep a glass right next to the bathroom sink to remind you to drink an extra pint first thing in the morning and right before bed,” she says.
- “The third week I try to plan the addition of a single serving [per day] of fruit or vegetables,” she says, mentioning taking a banana or apple to work (or your home office) for a healthy snack.
- “It isn’t until the last week of the month that I discuss slowly reducing consumption of a particular item with the athlete, most often this is either alcohol or a highly processed sugar items,” she says. “By taking it slow we can create and enforce positive habits that are encouraging to our self-discipline and healthy for our bodies and minds.”
And then there’s rest. “When exercising, sleep is perhaps the single most underrated and important aspect of training,” she says. “When the body is properly hydrated and fueled prior to sleep it allows for not only improved muscle repair and mitigation of inflammation but also more energy and cognitive acuity the next day. I used to struggle with sleep quality regularly as a college athlete, but now I implement a sleep routine to help me wind down, fall asleep and stay asleep. This routine includes stretching and using the foam roller, reducing screen time, and a quiet period of mindfulness/prayer — works like a charm.” Again, in troubled times, this kind of routine can restore a sense of normalcy and control.
RUN. EVEN A LITTLE
This brings us back to running. Running is uniquely able to help you get back in shape. “Running is a great component of a weight-loss plan due to the high-energy expenditure involved,” Holland says. “Unlike activities like swimming, biking or using an elliptical machine, your bodyweight is not supported and you therefore burn a significant number of calories while running.”
No matter how much time or energy you have, variety helps you keep it fresh during these lengthy months of staying at home. “A good strategy, both physically as well as psychologically, is to mix up your runs,” Holland says. “A variation of interval training, hill work and longer, slower steady-state runs will keep your body challenged, your workouts fresh and help to avoid injury as well. Running not only burns significant calories relative to many other forms of cardiovascular exercise, studies have shown it can also lead to decreased appetite and improved mood states, both of which can help lose as well as keep off the unwanted pounds.”
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.