A pandemic is no time to push yourself too hard

At a time of unprecedented, non-stop stress, runners need a more holistic approach.

For many runners, life in the pandemic looks like a crazy balancing act. Juggling work-from-home, helping children manage remote schooling, trying to stay COVID safe — it all adds up. Many runners find themselves tossing and turning at night, cutting short some of the back-end work they normally use to stave off injury, and are experiencing an overall heightened anxiety. It can take its toll.

Canadian marathon record holder Malindi Elmore counts herself among those who have suffered the consequences of the pandemic stress. This spring, Elmore began feeling the recurrence of an old hamstring injury and is convinced it was the pandemic that brought it on.

“I absolutely believe that the pandemic stress contributed to my injury, and that my feelings of overwhelm or anxiousness manifest in physical injury,” she says. “For me, the overall uncertainty and fear, concern for the well-being of others, trying to juggle my one- and five-year old boys at home 24/7, while staying on top of my own work and training, became overwhelming.”

“My runs gave me too much time to think and therefore made me feel even more anxious and catastrophic.”

These factors manifested in insomnia, says Elmore, as well as other signs of anxiety. Running, normally a time for her to process and find peace, became another source of stress.

“Because of my family’s schedule, I started fitting my runs in at random times of the day and rushing through workouts,” she says. “My runs gave me too much time to think and therefore made me feel even more anxious and catastrophic.”

Likewise, 41-year-old Erica Mancuso from North Carolina found herself on the injured list early in the pandemic. Following her participation in the Atlanta Publix Half Marathon in February, Mancuso kept right on running higher-than-normal mileage.

“It was a subconscious choice — it felt great to get outside and have some time for myself since my husband and kids were now home all the time,” she says. “I enjoyed my runs, and it was good stress relief. By the end of April, however, I felt like the tin man because I had been ignoring some niggles.”

Unfortunately for Mancuso, the end result was a torn labrum in her hip, requiring surgery in August.

Stress is stress is stress

Physical therapist and performance coach Chris Johnson, owner of Seattle-based Zeren PT, says that he’s seen an uptick in injured runners during the pandemic.

“At the beginning, I saw two demographics,” he explains. “Those whose gyms shut down and they then picked up running, and seasoned runners who suddenly found themselves with no commute and some extra time for running.”

Both groups presented in Zeren’s clinic with injury. Over the course of the pandemic, some of that demographic is still showing up with injury complaints, but there’s also been an evolution in that regard. “Now we’re seeing the impact of months without quality sleep, a downslide in eating habits, and increased anxiety,” he says.

The pandemic has hit bodies hard, and for runners, the best approach is to think holistically in order to stay healthy. The body registers stress — of any type — as, well, stress. At this moment in time, every runner is under more than usual, and they need to take that into consideration.

This describes Elmore’s situation. “I have always had a good cognitive awareness of stress on the body, and understand it’s impact,” she says. “But I felt like I was so out of control of the present circumstances.”

‘We’re all living through a negative life event. It’s not the time to push the needle or try to improve fitness.’

Many runners fall into this boat at the moment. “We have to be honest and sensible,” says Johnson. “We’re all living through a negative life event. It’s not the time to push the needle or try to improve fitness.”

Fellow PT Mike Eisenhart of New Jersey, agrees. “I’m seeing people spending more time in bed, but it’s not quality time in bed, so they’re not recovering as well,” he says. “As the pandemic wears on, it wears on our bodies.”

Eisenhart says that most seasoned runners are beginning to figure it out and manage the aches and pains by taking a step back when needed. “People are learning to find their way, but must respect the need for recovery,” he says.

One way to reframe this time period is to look at the opportunity to drill down and get the small things right, Eisenhart says. Johnson concurs and points to small, frequent breaks throughout the day as a good way to carry this out.

“This can be as simple as exposing yourself to some load for a small duration once during the morning and then again in the afternoon,” he says. “If you’re green to resistance training, for instance, this could look like a couple of sets of 10 air squats for one session, and then some sets of pushups in the afternoon.”

“Some people have [said] ‘good thing the Olympics weren’t this year. But I always say back, ‘this injury would not have happened if it had been a normal year.’”

Don’t discount the good that a short walk outdoors can provide either, for both physical and mental health. Use your lunchtime, for instance, for a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood, taking in sunshine you might not get on a pre-dawn run. You’ll return feeling rejuvenated and less stressed.

Luckily, both Elmore and Mancuso are back on the mend and running again. “I've been doing a ton of strength work and have been running much shorter distances while trying to rebuild some of my lost fitness,” says Mancuso. “My lesson learned is that I'll listen to my body and not be scared to scale back my mileage when I'm not feeling great.”

Likewise, Elmore recognizes where things went off track for her and has been able to make adjustments to overall stress. “Some people have commented to me ‘good thing the Olympics weren’t this year,’” she says. “But I always say back ‘this injury would not have happened if it had been a normal year.’

“In the end, it was probably a good thing for me because it forced me to take some rest and not be too fit all year for no purpose,” she adds. “It also forced me to return to some really strong fundamentals like regular strength training and body maintenance.”

— Amanda

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