As the current health crisis unfolds, endurance athletes around the world are seeing races cancelled. This decision is appropriate and necessary to do our part in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19, but, understandably, a number of athletes have expressed feeling that their training has been ‘lost’ or 'wasted' and are unsure of how to approach life without the structure and planning training provides. So we caught up with two professional athletes from the InsideTracker community to learn about how they’re handling canceled races, their training schedules, and the emotions tied to both.
It’s okay to mourn your race and take a step back from trainingYou set a goal, picked a plan, and put in hard work to execute. So it's perfectly justified to get caught up in feeling disappointed, sad, and frustrated at a cancelled race. As athletes, we are all experiencing a loss—of that chance to reach your goals, the ability to connect with others through group runs and workouts, and of the meaningful experience as a whole. But Nicole Mericle, a former NCAA track and field athlete turned Spartan Race world champ, encourages athletes to zoom out from a single race season to see the big picture and long-term approach. "Fitness takes time to cultivate and training builds on itself year after year. Think of this break from racing as extra prep time. Your fitness isn’t wasted. It’s being stored up to unleash at a later time."
Keely Henninger, a professional trail runner for Nike who was gearing up for the Western States 100, was flooded with feelings of helplessness and guilt about what she could do to contribute during this time. So she turned her focus and energy to things she could control. “I chose to stop running for the three weeks when my stress would undoubtedly be at its all-time high. This normally would have been extremely difficult, and it was made harder given the state of the world. However, I began to find solace in the fact that by staying in more often, I was helping others.”
Now, Keely has been finding joy in other places. She’s spending more time meal prepping, pulling out old paintings, focusing on important work projects and professional development, and hanging out with her roommates and pup—all while making time to stay in tune with her feelings. "Just because my life became simpler, it does not mean it has to be any less satisfying," says Henninger.
Doubling down on training can cause more harm than goodAt a time of great uncertainty and additional stress, now is the time to be smart about your training. “Even if you’re not dealing with job loss or sickness, the change in routine and fear of the unknown can be enough to add noticeable stress to our lives," Mericle cautions. And to manage her overall stress load, she follows a general rule of thumb: "if it’s going to create additional stress, don’t do it.”
And this rule applies to training. While regular exercise can have a positive impact on immune health (and obviously performance), there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive exercise will both add to your overall stress load and can ultimately impair your immune system—your most valuable asset. So, balancing your training and recovery is critical, especially now. A general rule of thumb? Now is probably an appropriate time to ramp down or temper the intense sessions usually reserved for peak training season. For more info on planning your exercise routine for immune support, check out this blog.
But this can be the perfect time to redirect your training focusFor those who are committed to continuing their routine, Mericle points out that this is a great time to address weaknesses or focus on different areas of training. “Maybe you don’t typically spend time on mobility, agility drills, strength training, plyometrics, speed work, or building up your mileage.” She says that this is the perfect time to focus on elements of training you may not otherwise in a typical race season. And if you're missing the competitive outlet of racing or want to put your fitness to the test, Mericle recommends replacing cancelled races with time trials, FKTs (fastest known times), or chasing Strava segments as an outlet.
But for right now, if you’re not feeling them, drop the long runs and rides from the schedule! Focus on maintaining your fitness by moving your body in whatever way feels good (while practicing social distancing). Henninger is using this time for a physical and mental reset and is working to fix “all of the little niggles that come with training and pushing your body for long amounts of time." During her break from running, Henninger says she feels happier pushing on the spin bike in her basement than tip-toeing around crowded trails and paths.
For Mericle, the unexpected break was somewhat welcomed at first. Going from racing a condensed track-and-field season to an eleven-month OCR season had been daunting for her. And now, with no upcoming races, she felt free to take a full week off from running. “I opted for easy walks with my dog and didn’t worry about getting in an exact amount of cross training.” Now that she’s ramped back into a training schedule, she’s adapting her routine to comply with social distancing measures. Her approach to strength training has seen the most change due to lack of gym equipment from social distancing guidelines, but she hasn't let that hold her back, and encourages athletes to do the same. “There's plenty of bodyweight exercises out there to strengthen your core and improve balance—two things most runners could work on.”
Racing impacts both our physical and mental healthWe know that many athletes rely on their training schedule and the community they’ve built around fitness as tools to improve their mental health, and it can be challenging and even scary to feel disconnected from that right now. But there are other ways to stay connected during physical distancing. We recommend checking out this blog for science-backed ways to maintain your mental health during this time—and to hear about how members of our community are implementing these practices.
For individuals struggling to make sense of this moment in history, Henninger provides a wise sentiment: “this crisis may change the world as we know it, but I plan to come out of it with an even greater understanding of who I am, why I run and exercise, and what makes me fulfilled. There is no need to compare where we are now to what we were before this crisis, but who we will be after.”
How to navigate your race season without a race
- Listen to your body! If you’re feeling additional stress, add in more rest days or active recovery
- Choose activities that bring you joy and feel good (while still practicing social distancing)
- Focus on weaknesses that you may have in your sport. This could be balance, strength, or flexibility work
- Set new goals as you adapt and adjust. More races might get canceled, so ask yourself: what are some non-race-related fitness goals that you’ve been wanting to achieve?
- Take this time to partake in other activities you enjoy outside of training you might not have felt that you had time for
- Reach out and stay connected to your training buddies, friends, and family virtually
- Be kind to yourself. Even without your race, you are still an athlete!
Stevie Lyn Smith, MS, RDN, CDN
- Stevie Lyn is a Content Strategist and Team Nutritionist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian and Ironman triathlete, she enjoys combining her passions to help educate others on how to fuel for overall health and performance. When she’s not swimming, biking, or running with her dog, you’ll find her in the kitchen working on a new recipe to improve her biomarkers.