What crazy times.
We are in the middle of two global pandemics: Coronavirus AND the anxiety that comes with it. On top of ongoing climate change concerns, right after brexit, a messy general election and during Ipswich Town FC’s worst season since last season (okay that one is just me) it’s a massively unsettling time for everyone. Collective anxiety can rarely have been higher among most generations of living adults.
For us runners, this anxiety is exacerbated by our races being cancelled. The things we live for are being taken away, albeit temporarily and its having an effect. No one really likes change or uncertainty, you only need look at how financial markets react to pretty much any adverse event to know this and runners like rhythm and routine more than anyone (apart perhaps from financial investors). Track tuesday, tempo thursday, parkrun saturday, long run sunday, we even rename the days of the week around our hobby – who other than runners does that? Without structure, we feel unsettled.
Then there is the not inconsequential matter of futility. You’ve spent months investing in a process that won’t have an outcome. Marathons can be cruel at the best of times – months of training towards a specific goal can be undermined by a sudden change in the ultimate uncontrollable, the weather, for example. With an uncontrollable global pandemic however, you may not even get a chance to try to show what you can do. However, if you dare to use social media to express your sadness or frustration that your race is cancelled rendering your training futile, you will swiftly be told to get things into perspective. You will also be told that training is never wasted, that you will be fitter, stronger and faster for your next training block and of course this is right. If you’re training for a marathon, you will start your next training block further ahead than you started this one, irrespective of the outcome. The strength, the fitness and importantly the experience won’t leave you which is what we said to our athletes after the ridiculously hot London Marathon of 2018, many of whom went on to record big PBs that autumn.
But that’s not really what this blog post is about. This post is about resilience, dealing with the anxiety of change, dealing with the disappointment of unfinished business, not just sweeping it under the carpet. Of course, people will appeal to you (or berate you) to get things into perspective – when people are dying how dare you get upset when a silly running race gets cancelled? And of course they have a point, especially if you’re going to publicly complain about poor communication from race organisers or whinge that you’ve lost money on a race that you will never run (you will probably actually save money versus what you would have spent incidentally around the race – who hasn’t bought something they didn’t need from an expo, for example).
But like most things in life, this isn’t as straight forward, as binary as that. Sport may not be a matter of life and death but it IS important, more important than we may realise.
Sport, and running within that, has a vital role to play in society. In troubled times, it gives us something to look forward to, it gives us something to aim for, it gives us something to learn from, and quite frankly it gives us a distraction from the stresses of life (that seem to be getting bigger – or perhaps that’s just what happens when you get older, like me). Without sport as an anchor, many of us are bereft. What do we do? What do we talk about? How do we release the tension of all the mounting stresses?
Running in particular has a profound and proven positive effect on our mental health. At this time of heightened anxiety, at the very time that we need that positive effect most, we have had our motivation to run compromised by the cancellation of races. When you layer that on to the runner’s love of routine and structure, it would hardly be surprising if the running community was at sea right now.
Runners are also a hardy bunch though, so what do we do about all this.
Well, as many of you know, I am a big fan of controlling the controllables, and controlling how you feel about things that you cant control. Yeah yeah, great but what does that actually mean?
First of all, as the lockdown becomes more and more likely it means not letting the speculation affect your training by forming a plan B.
Over the past few weeks, we have worked with our athletes, especially those that are in the shape of their life, to consider entering a small, low key UK race like Boston, Stratford, Newport, Milton Keynes or Southampton that is less likely to be cancelled.
While we may execute plan B, this was initially a measure purely designed to stop the constant speculation from distracting the athletes from the effort required to execute plan A. We were acting on what we could control, to maintain motivation and those athletes are cracking on very well.
We controlled some controllables, but there is then the issue of controlling how we feel about the things we can’t control.
We feel like we should be saying “it’s just a race, it doesn’t matter”. But that doesn’t really reflect the truth of our feelings and as a result it doesn’t help us deal with it.
Instead, the first step to dealing with all of this is to practice self compassion – it’s okay to be upset, annoyed and frustrated (but be clear that its not okay to be upset, annoyed and frustrated with anyone as it’s no one’s fault and everyone is trying their best in difficult times). Give yourself permission to feel upset about it. Others will feel the same, talk about it, share your feelings, use your coach to share your feelings.
Then, the second step to dealing with it is to spend some time thinking about what running is to you. Ask yourself why it is important to you.
If it is about the results, personal improvement, personal development and personal bests then try to relax and remind yourself that you are not defined as an athlete or a human by the time you can complete a race in, you are defined by how hard you try to improve. Then, spend some of your lockdown time working out what you want to achieve next. In particular focus on why this goal is important to you, and identify the hurdles that you may need to overcome to achieve it. Then, work out a plan with your coach and get to it, lace up, just run.
If it is about keeping or getting fit, put your shoes by the front door as a constantly nagging reminder to lace up, get out there, and just run.
If it is about protecting and nourishing your mental health, having some space and freedom from the stress we are all going to face in the coming days, then relax, put your watch away, delete strava from your phone and get out there. Just run.
Of course, this is an oversimplification as running is many things to many people, but this is about you, and YOU can spend the time you would have spent travelling to races, uploading photos to social media or eating your own body weight in free food after the race working out what running is to you and you’ll come back even stronger once this lockdown is over.
In the meantime, be patient, forgive yourself for feeling frustrated and be forgiving of others too. We’ll ALL feel better in the summer as a result of the positive action you take now.
By Steve Hobbs