Coronavirus Is Taking a Toll on Our Running Motivation. Here’s How to Handle That

Your K’s might be low or nonexistent—and that’s okay.

There’s undoubtedly a shadow cast over everything we do (and can’t do) right now, amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Running is supposed to be a cure-all, but these unprecedented, trying times are making it hard for many to muster the strength to lace up and head out the door.

That lack of motivation, mental health experts say, is understandable and completely normal in the short term.

“Life in general has slowed down a lot right now,” Gregory Scott Brown, M.D., director for the Center for Green Psychiatry in West Lake Hills, Texas, tells Runner’s World. “That kinetic energy we have from waking up in the morning, darting out of the house, and going to work motivates and inspires us, but now that routine is broken up, making it more difficult for people to find motivation.”

So how do we will ourselves to log Km’s? Or do we at all? Like under normal circumstances, it’s all about balance, Brown says.

Why Don’t I Feel Motivated Anymore?

We don’t have to tell you that runners are creatures of habit. And when those habits are broken, it can be a shock to the system.

“As with everything, there isn’t a one-size-fits all answer [to not feeling motivated],” sports psychologist Sam Maniar, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Peak Performance, tells Runner’s World. “Maybe you don’t have a goal to strive for—a lot of races are postponed—or you feel like you’re not getting much done, or your sleep cycle is off.”

Any of those things on their own can cause people to ditch their routine. Add an immense time of uncertainty, stress, and isolation, and the whole situation provokes anxiety, Maniar says.

“The anxiety, loss of purpose, and complete disruption of order has killed my running since March,” Krista Ruehmer, a Milwaukee-based runner, tells Runner’s World. “I was on such a roll and hoping for a half marathon PR this year. Now I’m struggling to run 20 km’s a week, [let alone] the 50 I had been running.”

For Ruehmer, it’s not just the disruption of her routine that’s making it nearly impossible to log k’s—it’s also the stress of seeing other people on her route and possibly getting sick.

Maniar emphasises the importance of identifying the barriers for not getting out the door. Maybe you’re used to running with people. To work around that obstacle, Maniar suggests texting your group before you run to hold you accountable or for a sense of camaraderie.

For Adam Rosenfeld, not having a group to run with has been a huge obstacle in getting out the door.

“Without that structure and motivation and push at the start of my day, I just slipped,” Rosenfeld, who went from logging 45 k’s a week to roughly 10, tells Runner’s World. “Group runs are key to my happiness, even if no one talks to me on the run.”

Ruehmer also says she misses her friends, with whom she’d run with every weekend, followed by coffee.

“It was a constant and a motivator,” she says. “I never realised how much I depended on it until social distancing deemed it impossible. It will be amazing to finally have that small piece of life back.”

If you’ve tried solving for these barriers and still don’t feel like running, that’s not a huge surprise right now, says Maniar, who works with professional athletes.

“The pandemic has taken away their structure, their competition. It’s taken away life as they know it,” he says. “When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising that they don’t feel motivated.”

I Just Don’t Want to Run Right Now. Is that Okay?

For runners who have always braved the elements and quieted the voice in their heads that said, “Just sleep in today,” skipping a workout can feel foreign and may even provoke a sense of guilt.

But if you just don’t want to run, “That’s absolutely okay,” Brown says. “It’s all about balance. Sometimes there’s so much pressure to go, go, go, and now that life has slowed down, you’re not feeling that same pull, and the guilt can kick in.”

The guilt cycle is a vicious one: Feel guilty about not being motivated, skip a run, feel guilty about skipping a run.

“In the short term, take some time to relax or try something new,” Brown, a runner and yogi, says. “That’s completely fine and okay and beneficial.”

The key point, however, is over the short term. While there isn’t a definitive time frame of short term right now, feeling a lack of motivation for weeks or months might be indicative of a larger issue, including anxiety and depression, Maniar says.

“It’s a scary time right now, and there is a loss of motivation,” he says. “I don’t want everyone to think if I stopped running, I’m depressed, but if you’re not motivated to get out of bed or exercise when typically you would be, that’s a warning sign that something is off.”

Other red flags that might be indicative of anxiety or depression include behaviour change, sleep changes—not sleeping enough, sleeping too much, or trouble falling or staying asleep—feeling tired upon waking, appetite changes—eating more or less than usual—and isolating yourself further from those around you, including virtual hangouts.

More obvious symptoms include crying, increased heart rateheadaches, and muscle tension. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it might be time to seek professional help, Maniar says.

And you’re not alone: Brown says prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants have increased as a result of the pandemic.

How Can I Break Out of This Rut?

At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with skipping a handful of workouts, and doing so might actually provide a needed break. But there’s no question that regular physical exercise can significantly improve mental health.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, for example, found that people ages 20 and older who engaged in light physical activity were more likely to experience depression and metabolic conditions—such as high blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol—compared with those who engaged in vigorous activity.

And a 2017 meta-analysis published in the same journal found that people with major depressive disorder had a roughly 50 percent higher chance of not meeting the guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every week.

In other words, regular exercise, like running, can help prevent and treat depression.

“Exercise has been shown to be as effective, if not more so, at combatting things like depression and anxiety than any medication out there,” Maniar says. “And exercise is a great way to manage stress, which can put you at risk of getting sick.”

The best way to get back into an exercise routine is slowly, Brown and Maniar say.

“It’s all about eating the elephant one bite at a time,” Maniar says. “Break it down into manageable chunks.”

You don’t have to get out every day or match your pre-coronavirus k’s, Brown says. Instead, commit to one or two runs per week at whatever distance you feel like in the moment. Or don’t run, and instead try at-home yoga.

Brown recommends putting together a daily schedule to help bring structure back into the picture.

“Even if you’re not going to work, set an alarm to wake up at a certain time. Schedule a lunch break. Schedule a run,” he says. “Creating time and space for a run is important because it lets us know it’s something we need like food, water, and air.”

While not everyone is motivated by having a race on the calendar, many runners need to work toward something to keep up with their routine.

“It’s hard to do the training unless you have that carrot out in front of you,” Nick Willis, a 1500-meter runner and is training for the 2020 Olympics, tells Runner’s World. “Getting out the door is the hardest part. But once you get going, the run takes care of itself.”

Ruehmer can relate. In an effort to ease the anxiety of bumping into other people, she has relegated herself to a 4 km loop in her neighborhood. With her coach, she’s focusing on speed and working on improving her loop time, something she hasn’t done before.

“I’m excited to see how much I improve,” she says. “I feel like turning the boring 4km loop into a game is the right amount of turning lemons into lemonade.”

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