Why I won’t stop running due to COVID

Why I won’t stop running due to COVID

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My name is Joe McConaughy, and I am semi-professional ultra runner and coach located in Boston. I’m writing this for all of us, particularly runners, who are coping with stay at home orders due to COVID, on why I won’t stop running due to COVID.

COVID is taking its toll on us all. Zoom hangouts aren’t as fun as hugging your best friend, I’m being pushed to my culinary limits and time no longer has meaning. Also, I’m an avid runner. Before COVID and before I was laid off from my day job, I’d run 5 miles to and from each day on the Charles River in Boston. The shimmering water was the perfect morning greeting. My calendar was filled to the brim with races, trail adventures and social runs. Those were the days.

But, I’m an avid runner and COVID won’t end soon. That’s a fact. That means not running with friends, no PR’s or bucketlist races and facemasks. I won’t stop running due of COVID. I also coach marathon and ultra runners. This is me; this is my identify. Similar to mile 20 in a marathon, my body and mind may tell me no, but I carry on with a weary smile.

Like many of you, my heart is torn. Somedays, motivation is hard to find. Often, I find myself thinking:

Why would I crank a hard long run with no races on the horizon? Or perhaps, my favorite race is cancelled, so I’m not running in solidarity. Even better, everyone has stopped talking about Tiger King, but maybe I’d rather do a re-run of that on the TV than on the pavement.

Everyday, these thoughts swim inside of my head – I know I’m not the only one. I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time. My heart sinks when I talk to friends who are struggling during these times. Running forces us outside, promotes physical and mental health and is my daily savior.

For you runners, I implore you: Don’t stop running. In these times, I have 3 core tenets of my belief system. Don’t stop, love the process, and pick a new ‘finish line.’ Each tenet has a few actionable takeaways that you might be able to implement. I hope you stay active and healthy, and please wear a mask when running and continue to practice social distancing.

Looking for more running inspiration? Subscribe to the TheStringbean newsletter, insider access to my coaching tips, training and adventures.

Explore your neighborhood. After 10 years of living in Boston, we finally found these trails while exploring during COVID.

Don’t Stop

On a dreary Tuesday, my wife, Katie, and I peaked out the windows of our apartment in Boston. The time was 5:00PM. The weather was horrendous – a torrential May downpour. Immediately, our mood plummeted. After nine hours behind a computer at home, we were still stuck inside.

Katie joked, “What if we just ran anyway?” We both cracked up at the absurd thought. Then, we gave each other a second look. “Well, we could just put on all our rain gear and go for a trail run?” I chipped in, trying to lean into the absurdity of it. Who the hell would actually go for a run in this weather?

Of course, ten minutes later, Katie and I are in our little Honda Fit, windshield wipers operating on overdrive. You could barely hear our Columbia rain gear crinkling over the rain pounding on our roof.

We hit the closest nearby trail system. As we arrived, the rain cleared. We galloped through three miles of vibrant forests after a fresh storm. On trail, we didn’t see a single soul. We laughed. Our clothes were covered in mud. We picked up Chipotle on our drive home. The adventure was one of my most memorable and fun runs in a long time. I won’t stop running due to COVID.

Running makes us happy. Exercise forces us to disconnect from social media and breaks up the daily routine. Studies have shown that it combats depression and anxiety while increasing your mood and energy levels. These are incredible benefits, especially during quarantine.

Go, put on a mask and get outside, you will thank yourself later.

At the trail head after a 3 mile trail run with Katie. We just missed a thunderstorm. I got sweaty and had to ‘modify’ my rain gear. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a t-shirt.

Actionable Takeaways

Below I have included a few techniques that I use myself and encourage my athletes to implement.

Implementation method: Use this technique if you struggle to find motivation or the time to go run. The implementation method is a technique to implement changes in habits. Many people believe wanting to exercise purely comes from ‘motivation’ or ‘drive.’ Interestingly, studies have found that developing an actionable intention will increase your likelihood of doing that action 2.5x more effective than having motivation or the goal of doing it.

How does it work? It’s quite simple. The concept of an implementation method is “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.” I’ve used this page as a resource ever since Evren, one of my athletes who specializes in positive psychology, turned me on to the idea. To create your own implementation method, write down a short statement to hold yourself accountable. Be specific, include a time, behavior and location. Below are a few examples:

  • “When I wake up at 7AM, I will run 5 miles to the park and back.”
  • “When it is a Saturday, I will complete my weekly long run after breakfast at 11AM.”
  • “When I do an easy run of less than 3 miles, I will spend 15 minutes doing strength work.”

Find the new normal: COVID has changed our daily needs and experiences. Take a second to acknowledge this. Many people try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Examine your daily schedule, how it has changed and how that affects your mood. Are you waking up and going to bed at the same time? What are you doing with the time it used to take to commute? Are you spending more time with family or roommates?

Recognize a change, accept it, and adjust. For example, we can’t go to the gym anymore, and that is okay. Instead, we can find workouts online or take our weights to a local park. Find ways to bring an active lifestyle into this new normal.

Love the Process

Many runners start because of a race or fitness goal. But, as the old addage says, it is not the finish line that matters, it is the journey. Now is the best time to fall back in love with running without races or distractions hanging over you.

I started running, because I wanted to be fast. Growing up, my goal was to run a sub four minute mile. After competing as a good but not great runner in college, I realized I didn’t have to run if I didn’t want to. Upon graduating in 2014, I had achieved a different life long dream of running the entire Pacific Crest Trail. After completing this journey, I realized I didn’t have to run anymore. If I didn’t want to run, no one was forcing me.

For the first time in my life, I asked myself, “Do I like running?”

After a seven month break, I came to my conclusion. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I realized what I really loved was trail running. My interests had matured, I was was captivated by the challenging of trying to run longer distance in more wild places. I no longer wanted to break the four minute barrier. Since then, I have travelled the world for races, worked with awesome brands like Columbia and TrailButter, and ran the Appalachian Trail.

Then, COVID happened. My summer races and plans have changed. Suddenly, I’m training and there is no finish line. My running goals have had the rug pulled out from under them, but I won’t stop running due to COVID. Instead, I’m using this time to fall back in love with the process. I’m exploring parts of my neighborhood that I’ve never been to even though I’ve lived in Boston for 10 years. On every run, I try to smile. Running provides a much needed break from social media and my apartment.

Fall in love with running. Take time to take care of yourself. Why do you enjoy running in the first place?

Looking for a good video during quarantine? Check out my documentary with Pilot Field, Stringbean, on my Fastest Known Time on the Appalachian Trail.

Actionable Takeaways

Practice gratitude: Gratitude is the practice of acknowledging and appreciating the people who make you who you are. Gratitude is a great daily technique if you’ve been feeling sad or anxious and is often incorporated into meditation. I find running to be the perfect place to clear my head and practice gratitude.

To begin, take a moment to clear your mind. Begin to focus on someone who you’ve interacted with recently – this could be a parents or child, a friend or a complete stranger. Why is this person making an impression on you at this moment? Maybe they’ve been an integral part of your life in the last few years, or maybe they shown you certain compassion or kindness. Identify why you love or appreciate this person and focus on those feelings. Either in your mind or out loud, state who you are grateful for and why. Repeat the phrase. Simple!

Release yourself of expectations: People tend to be anxious. As runners, we log miles to achieve some kind of fitness goal, whether that is to work off an extra bite of cheesecake to PR in an upcoming race. Many athletes I work with want to run all their favorite races. Usually they are ultramarathons, and a new event occurs each month. Talk about overkill!

Now we have the opposite problem, there is no schedule. My recommendation is to release yourselves of overbearing expectations. The concept that you need a race to be ‘productive’ or ‘improve’ is wrong. As a runner, you improve through the accumulation of physiological and mental adaptations that take years to build – consistency is king. Take your focus off of the finish line and explore our love/hate relationship with this thing called running.

Pick a New ‘Finish Line’

Almost all races between March and July have been cancelled. Even rescheduled races like the Boston Marathon, now planned September, are in question. We are all asking ourselves, what am I training for?

Garrett is an athlete I coach in Boston. His first race was going to be the Big A 50k, a challenging trail course in Maine. When the race was cancelled, he came up with a new plan. I encouraged him to create a new project that would inspire and challenge him. He created the Leominster Solo 50k, a route stretch of pretty technical trails that he wanted to string together. He had a very strong message that is worth sharing:

I hope it inspires you to create a fun adventure for yourself right now where you can enjoy some solitude, get some good physical training in, and ultimately learn something from, whether that’s developing mental fortitude, fine-tuning your gear choices, or just getting your head back in a good place during this COVID-19 crisis. Just because races are cancelled doesn’t mean you have to stop training and learning. It just means you have to use a little more creativity to come up with individualized events that address your specific training needs!

Garrett Simon

I challenge you to design a project or join a virtual event that challenges and inspires you.

A photo of Garrett during his Leominster Solo 50k. A little snow didn’t stop him!

I hope this article challenges your approach towards running

Ask someone why they run and you’ll hear responses like “to stay in shape,” “to meet new people,” or “to run faster.” On the other-hand, how often do you hear the response, “Because I love running.”

Many runner’s see running as a means to an end, not the end itself.

If you think about it, running a powerful form of self-expression. Somehow, the act of running combines my competitiveness, curiosity for the world, drive for self-improvement and social nature to provide me joy.

I love running and the process of running. I won’t stop running due to COVID. After a little reflection, I’d be curious to hear if you reach a similar conclusion.

In more normal times, a race epitomizes all those factors that drive me: competitiveness, curiosity, self-improvement and social connection. With no races, how are my athletes and I staying motivated? I use running as a form of self-expression. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to pick your finish line and to focus on it. I’m identifying bucket list trails that I hope to run, like the Long Trail or John Muir Trail and planning.

Actionable Takeaways

Design a goal run/race: Find a distance or route that has appeal to you. Having a race-type effort on your calendar will increase your focused and motivation. For many marathoners, this means running a 5k/10k/half-marathon/marathon time trial. For trail runners, this means a certain trail or distance that you’ve always wanted to run. You could even create or go after FKT! Pick a date and hold yourself accountable, treat this like an actual race.

Often, road runners struggle with there to start with trail running and trail runners don’t push themselves with time trial efforts like a 5k. Mix it up and try something new. This is a time to experiment!

Periodization training: A common endurance training principle is periodization training. A key tenet of training, you’ve been doing this whether you realize it or not. If you are running just to run or don’t have anything that breaks up your long term training calendar, take a serious look at periodization. The concept is simple, your body has the higher quality physiological adaptations when it has periods of overstress and understress. Exercise, recover, repeat.

A typical training block is 2.5-4 months and increases in intensity over the period to prepare you for a race at the end of the block. To avoid overtraining and injury and maximize performance, don’t forget to take 4 days to 2 weeks off from training between training blocks, depending on the intensity.

Leave a comment!

Now you know why I won’t stop running due to COVID! I hope this article has provided inspiration and guidance and prompted critical thinking. Now is a great time to practice introspection.

Leave a comment below. What have you been struggling with recently about running? What tips and mantras do you have for others to adopt?

When you are ready, put on a facemask, lack up your shoes and go for a run!

Looking for more running inspiration? Subscribe to the TheStringbean newsletter, insider access to my coaching tips, training and adventures.

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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    Now that I don’t have a 2 hr commute, my running has actually been MORE consistent and better It’s the ONE shining beacon in my day where it’s MY TIME as I am working from home full time AND homeschooling my son. I was supposed to run Chicago but that’s pushed now to 2021 so I’m using this time to just get my fitness up as much as I can and focus on getting stronger and faster!

    1. Joe McConaughy

      That’s amazing!!! 2 hours of your life back. Glad to hear you are taking control, but I can’t believe you are doing it while homeschooling. Good work.

    1. Joe McConaughy

      Great article, I really appreciate your reflection on my writing! For anyone who is looking for more thoughts on this topic, give Kristen’s article a read (linked above).

  2. Jeff

    For me it has been difficult to ‘find my stride’ for a variety of reasons that all center around uncertainty. A solo run of more than an hour and a half leads my mind to wander on a variety of topics outside of my control. The uncertainty of if my October race will be canceled. The uncertainty of if the trail heads are closed or too congested to enjoy.

    Long runs have been the most difficult to get done now a days, a departure from their typical status as the highly of my week.

    So far I’ve used the following methods to push the rock up the hill and accumulate the miles.
    -Exploring lesser known local trails with my wife and dog.
    -Abandoning the trails totally and logging long runs on the road. This serves the dual purpose of getting the miles done quicker and avoids the congestion of the trails.
    -Instead of focusing on far out race goals focusing on weekly or monthly goals such as ‘get 50 miles in a week’ or ‘do a 26 mile long run’.

    1. Joe McConaughy

      Thanks for commenting, Jeff. I worry about October races, too.

      Now is a great time to explore lesser known places. I’m doing that around my neighborhood in Brookline, granted, they aren’t typically trails, but it helps me feel much more connected with my neighborhood.

      Shifting to a focus on weekly mileage is important. I find this to be a much more applicable tool to judging progress, since a month should typically have some periodization in it. I try to structure a typical month to ebb and flow, Week 1: 55 miles / Week 2: 58 miles / Week 3: 63 miles / Week 4: 50 (recovery).

  3. Daniel Easa

    When races started to be cancelled I took some time off and struggled with the same questions about about motivation and the whys that you bring up. After much thought I started running again with some answers. I continue to run because I enjoy it and I love what it has done for my health and my body. I continue to run because I refuse to give back everything I have gained in the last 5 or so years as a runner. I also know that sooner or later races will be run again and when they are, I want to be ready for the ramp up, not starting from square one. I continue to run because it’s just what I do and part of who I am at this point in my life.

  4. Garrett

    Releasing expectations and practicing gratitude have been key for me right now. I had plenty of expectations going into this spring and summer of all the cool places I was going to travel to for camping and running. Those obviously got shot down pretty quickly, and after initial frustration, I realized that all I can do is be grateful for what I do have. Being thankful and attentive towards the resources available to me now has sparked plenty of fun & creative training ideas. Putting it all together, I guess the inconveniences of COVID-19 have really just made me a more flexible and adaptable runner.

    1. Joe McConaughy

      I’m glad you’re making it through. Thanks for the notes! Having a prolonged period of time with released expectations can be a very positive experience.

  5. Courtney T

    I was also laid off (pretty sure from the same place you were) and two of my three 2020 marathons are cancelled (the third to follow soon most likely). I’ve found that running and working out is providing me with the control and structure I need in my life when everything else feels so out of my control.
    I’ve been exploring my neighborhood in search of quiet streets that I can run with my mask down, building strength so that when we can race again, I’m ready to roll, and working on mobility.
    Running and being active is my one constant, covid or not. It may look a little different right now, but it’s what I’ve always got.

    1. Joe McConaughy

      Stay motivated! I find myself doing a lot more local exploring in my neighborhood as well.

      I’m sorry to hear you have been laid off as well and that you’ve had all the cancellations. Keep channeling that energy and momentum to positive places.

  6. Dan Cummins

    I gave up running six weeks ago, basically because I grew tired of worrying what other people would yell at me as they saw me run by. Even though I was running by myself in the middle of the street, I was worried that I wasn’t taking the health and safety of others seriously enough. Truth be told, I took the time to understand how this Covid jazz spreads, and to reflect on what is important. I honestly feel like while other people’s health is top priority, I have failed to take care of my own well-being and know I can run. I miss running. I need running! I am the type who doesn’t need a race to train for but loved getting locked in the rhythm of movement and getting lost in the miles. After I read your post, I’m now able to see over my fears of letting my fellow man down. I’m a big fan of yours and consider your post the nudge I needed to get back out there. Vive le StringBean!

    1. Joe McConaughy

      I have been yelled at multiple times as I ran by walkers, especially when COVID was first happening. My low was when I was about 40ft away from a lady and yelled at me to put on my mask. It made me a little upset and self conscious.

      Thanks for your really nice note, vive le Stringbean is my new favorite battling cry. I’m trying to work on a running mask post, keep an eye out!

      And while you are waiting for that, lace up and get in a few miles! Try back roads/routes, explore where you live and see less people.

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