Running without Races

How to stay motivated when the event calendar is empty. (a.k.a. playing the long game—or how to master the art of the long-term endurance goal.)

If you’re an elite professional runner, you will most likely find a way to secure a coveted bib and compete this year. Following in the footsteps of other larger professional sports, on October 4, the London marathon created the first ever runner’s bubble, in which top tier marathoners went toe to toe after first crossing all kinds of quarantine finish lines and travel rigmaroles.

But what if you’re not a pro, you just like to dream about sub six-minute miles? Or, what if you were gaining momentum in your running game right when the world hit pause? Should you abandon your PR ambitions? There’s a very strong argument against doing so. In fact, having and working toward goals can actually improve your mood, energy levels—an even immune system. Here’s a little on how to safely set, adjust or maintain racing goals during a pandemic, and why they actually might be more important than ever.

Why you should set a goal

Goal-setting has long been understood as a powerful psychological tool based on some pretty simple science. When you set a goal, you automatically imagine a new picture of who you could be, a new self-identify. Because we tend to choose goals that will improve our lives, that new self-identity is almost always a positive one. So when we take steps (even the tiniest, small nudges) toward that better self, dopamine is produced in the brain, creating happiness, elation and momentum. That’s part of why checking off a to-do list item or workout feels so good. The best part is these goals can be very small to have a big impact on overall mental health.

Bottom line: Each step toward a goal will make you happier and healthier, not just the end result.

How to choose a goal in a pandemic

There has never been a better time to be conservative and thoughtful with your training approach. 2020 might not be the year you blaze toward a Boston-qualifying time in a three-month strugglefest. But, you can use this time to slowly build a strong base with a significantly reduced threat of injury. If the longest distance you’ve ever run is a 5K, luxuriate in the opportunity to stretch your miles to maybe a half-marathon over the course of a year instead of weeks. If a marathon has been on your mind, channel your inner tortoise and create a plan that is the least extreme. Savoring the process will give you more warm fuzzy feelings and boosted health for longer anyway.

Bottom line: Make a plan for 12 to 16 months versus 4 to 6 months.

How to stay motivated without the medal (or bragging rights)

If you’re powered by PRs and kudos on Strava, don’t get discouraged with a lack of race results. Melanie Baker, Bellevue Club personal trainer and seasoned long distance runner, says now is the time to find pleasure in other perks. “Booking running appointments with friends is way more fun,” she says. So if you’re usually one to stick to a strict, no-room-for-error schedule, loosen up and remember a lower pace can mean more time and space for laughs. And on that note, she also suggests booking a little running vacay (to discover a faraway new trail) or find the joy in pampering yourself with a new piece of gear or massage when you hit certain milestones in your plan. Just remember, when the pressure valve is lifted even just a little great things can happen.

Bottom line: Find a way to bring more fun and less pressure into your training.

How to cope if you have to race

If taking a year to back off a little is completely unbearable, there are a few online virtual options. However, few are qualifying events for larger races. This is a great way to stay connected to a bigger running community if you don’t have a regular running buddy or just want to put your skills to the test. For more information, visit runguides.com/washington/runs for a list of Washington-based and national virtual races.

Bottom line: Races are available if you’re willing to go virtual.

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