Wellness

The Psychology Behind Your Long Quarantine Runs

Are you craving long runs these days—or none at all? There's a reason behind both inclinations.

As I run up the street and take a right onto the boardwalk, I’m confronted with caution tape and a big red sign: “Due to COVID-19 precautions, the boardwalk and promenade are closed.” I double back, but I find my legs propelling me past my street—running down Ocean Avenue along the sea wall and toward the next town.

As with most of my runs since the quarantine rules were instituted, I’d headed out without a mileage or time goal for this one. And even though I feel like I could run forever, I decide to be a smart runner and not risk injury by pushing beyond six miles.

Six miles! Outside of one 10K in early March, I haven’t run more than four or five miles in months, maybe over a year. That wasn’t always the case. I have 10 marathons under my belt, including the six World Marathon Majors. In April 2017, after crossing the finish line at the Paris Marathon, that intense craving I used to feel to run long dissipated. I started lifting weights and doing lots of yoga, and my runs became once weekly, if that.

But there was something about this current situation, a worldwide pandemic pushing me out of my Greenwich Village apartment to fewer crowds and ocean air in a New Jersey shore town, that was bringing it all back.

And I’m certainly not alone. Several times over the course of the six miles I crossed the street to give other runners a 6-foot berth. There are a lot of obvious explanations for my own mileage increases as well as others’: Many of us have more time since we’re not commuting to work each day (and unfortunately, some have lost jobs altogether). Gyms are closed, meaning our regular weight-lifting routines are on an indefinite hiatus. The pandemic coincided with a warming of the air on the East Coast, making the weather ideal for a long run. It’s also safer these days with fewer cars on the road and less pollution.

But I had a feeling there was something deeper going on, too. So I called sports psychologist Lennie Waite, Ph.D., to get her take. “These days, people crave time outside of their house, and they crave a structured schedule—running is something that can give them both of those things,” Waite says.

There’s also an element of being in control when you’re on a run, or even thinking about going on a run, that comes into play for some people (cough, me). Certainty and control is something that we are absolutely not getting in our day-to-day lives—I mean, when will quarantine rules relax? Will I score that Whole Foods delivery window today or will I have to make a trip to the store? What will life be like as things normalize? Is my job safe? What if my grandparents get sick?—but through scheduling a training week or even a single run you can feel a sense of individual power. “It’s a good chance for somebody to take control over their own personal improvement in an area like running,” says Waite. “It allows them to spend a little bit more time in their own head, not following the instructions of a trainer or somebody leading a class, but listening to their own voice, and understanding how to push their body on their own, gaining autonomy.”

So perhaps that explains my new training schedule. After that six-miler, I felt that familiar runner’s high sink in and last all day. I decided then and there: Next week, I’d run seven. And then eight, and then nine, and here I am today, first week in May, fresh off a 10-mile jaunt. I’ve committed to adding one mile to my weekend long run for every week of exile from New York City. Right now, I am really, truly enjoying it. (I just hope things normalize before I get up to 26 miles!)

According to Waite, goal setting, whether it’s adding one mile a week to your long run like me, being able to run a single mile at the end of this, or running three or four days a week consistently, is smart. “People set goals because they love to see progress, and that progress is motivating and confidence-boosting,” she says. “It can create a positive feedback loop that people really need in this time, especially for those who are working less (or not at all), or missing out on a race or social events like a concert or festival,” says Waite. “They need to get that sense of fulfillment and progress somewhere else.” That, she says, is what I’m doing for myself by adding that one mile to my long run each weekend.

Waite says her hope is that the 2020 running boom doesn’t end when quarantine rules relax, and that people will continue to lace up their running shoes even when they can go back to their “normal” lives. For me, self-imposed marathon-style training (with no race in sight) will likely get old before high summer, but this whole experience has given me a newfound appreciation for this sport that has done so much for my mental and physical health over the years. It’s always there for me; to take my mind off things, to give me that sense of control, to flood my body with endorphins. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Not Feeling It?

That is A-OK and also totally normal, per Lennie Waite. “These high-stress situations impact everybody psychologically really differently,” says Waite. “There’s not something that you should be doing other than making sure that exercise and running is having a positive impact in your life.” So if running 30 minutes a day or 90 minutes a day makes you happy, great. But if you’re WFH while home-schooling your kids and feeling totally stretched, recognize that right now might not be the time to level-up your training and that is completely fine. And for more competitive runners, it’s natural for their motivation to dip right now, with races being canceled for the foreseeable future. To them, Waite says not to sweat it: When the time comes to step up to that line again, that motivation will come back.

Be Kind to Yourselves, Runners!

There are a whole lot of new runners out there these days. “Running isn’t something you can just go out and do for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour at a time if you haven’t been doing it,” Waite cautions. “Part of me is a little bit scared that a lot of these people will end up injured, because they’re suddenly running for however long they’d spend in the gym,” she says. “But no matter how naturally talented or fit you are, running is hard when you’re trying to do it continuously, and you haven’t done it before.” Waite’s advice: “Be kind to yourself and create a realistic program to increase mileage in order to keep that motivation up, prevent injury, and give yourself a chance to actually improve.”