This article is adapted from an article published by myself in RMA in 2016. I think that some of the lessons here we can adapt to our ever changing situation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of my thoughts.
Recently I found myself unwell which lead to a week in bed. During this time there was no time for running, let alone energy to even walk to the bathroom. What I knew to be the best thing for me, rest for my sick body soon became something that lead me to despair. Not only did I fear all my hard work undone with each day of bedrest, and the fear of looming fitness decline, my mental state soon declined with it. Soon I found my body healing, but my mental state heading south. My motivation to even get out of bed was even going downhill.
Soon it wasn’t only running that I didn’t want to do, but it was also speaking to people, doing any work and being around others. You see, for some of us, Running for mental health is a real thing. A huge thing. And when we don’t have running, it can lead to a sudden decline in our happiness.
Running, or exercise in general releases chemicals in our blood stream called endorphins. It is these endorphins that leave us on our ‘runners high’ after a session or an event. The main function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals; they may also produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by other opioids. (wiki) So basically endorphins are like a natural morphine. They make us feel good and they make us want to go back for more. Over time during training for endurance events we get used to this high feeling or the euphoria that comes with training day after day. The happiness that we feel after running and the sense of achievement that it gives us when our training is going to plan gives us the euphoric feeling we love and is a key reason we keep running, so it is a no-brainer that when we are injured or sick, or life gets in the way and we can’t run that this euphoric feeling heads south and we experience the negative feelings kicking in. Leave it long enough and we can head into a depressive state.
Another key factor to this positive running experience is the connection that we feel when we are in the midst of our training with others. Most of us run at some time or another with others as part of our training. This connection keeps us accountable, and keeps us motivated. We feel connected and we are rewarded with friendships and common bonds, we aren’t alone at 5am in the cold and the dark and we enjoy the journey together. But what if our connection to others in this way, like now is suddenly cut off? How can we keep positive in our training?
For some of us this connection might only be through an online source such as the RMA facebook network group, and this for some is a huge aspect to keeping them motivated to keep going, and in turn keep the happy endorphins flowing. When someone is hit with injury or illness, or things like a worldwide pandemic no-one saw coming, and inability to run and connect in this way happen they are immediately isolated from this key group that forms so much of their new found identity. This can be a recipe for mental health decline. I have seen it happen and I have experienced it myself.
So how can we keep this from happening? What can we do?
Well, if we are running, we should keep running. Lesson one. Or at least we should keep exercising. And this is why so many people who are diagnosed with depression are told to go and exercise before starting any medication. Because for a lot of us it works. It keeps those low clouds at bay and keeps those endorphins releasing.
But what if we can’t run?
Here are my suggestions:
: Keep yourself surrounded. Don’t think that because you can’t run with others you have to go into hiding from all your running friends. This is not a great idea. How about creating some sort of accountability with each other. If you used to meet every Tuesday morning for hills. Every Tuesday morning you all do your own hills on your own, or with one other person keeping all social distancing standards in mind. The landscape is ever changing, and running on your own but still being accountable to each other will keep you in routine and motivated to report back what you have achieved.
: Join a strava challenge or a virtual event. There are so many virtual events up and running now along with a few strava challenges (such as the one in the RMA Strava group now) to be a part of to keep you running during this time. We are not locked down in our houses yet, and you are still able to move, so head out the door each day for some fresh air and exercise or run on the treadmill if you have access to one.
: Get out into nature. Going somewhere like a trail to do your run not only will mean you are more physically distant from others, it will be so amazing for your mental health. Just standing in nature makes you happy, so to run and enjoy natures playgrounds at this time is something that you could do.
But what if we can’t run?
Find another form of exercise to help release those endorphins. This could be swimming in your backyard pool, cycling on a standstill bike, bike-riding around the block, weight training, walking, hiking, yoga, dancing or other forms of exercise. Preferably exercise that gets the blood pumping and the heart rate up.
But what if I am stuck home with my kids and I can’t get out?
: If you can’t get out for a run or exercise each day alone, exercise with your kids. Take them on a short hike or walk or a bike ride. Throw hoops in the backyard. All of the above solo activities of course can also be done with your kids too if you are home-schooling at this time so you don’t have to go it alone! Connect with them and spend quality time with them doing these things together.
But what if we can’t go out of our homes at all?
Adapt the above. You can download workouts from the internet. If you have access to treadmills and gym equipment, you are going to find it much easier than someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do some home workouts anyway and keep active. Look online. There are so many cheap or free workouts going around right now. Youtube is another great place to look! Stream these on your laptop or smart TV if you have one by yourself and with the kids and make it a PE lesson! Running might just have to wait during this time, unless your yard is large and you can do repeats around your house. There is ALWAYS a way.
: Don’t give up on your goals. Re-shift, refocus if you must, but don’t give up. Find new goals and work towards them, even short term goals to keep your fitness up during this time, like increasing the amount of lunges you do, or laps you can swim of your pool etc. A few years ago when I was out for a few months I had to re-adjust my goals. Both my A races were not going to happen. Now I look back and see that things were just as they should be, and I am stronger for it now.
So before you go and reach for the bottle in despair, think about trying those things out….you know you will be back up and running in no time, our world will be in a better place eventually, but the blessing that each of us have is our health and the ability to keep exercising in inventive and creative ways. Keep going to ensure your mental stays positive, and your goals in the forefront of your mind for when we return to normal life.