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The Surprising Upside of Training in 2020

This year has upended our lives in unimaginable ways. And while it may be cliché, runners have found a silver lining—here are four major lessons learned from training in 2020.

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Angelina Funtanilla’s year got off to an inauspicious start. In late January, she planned to run a 10K on the northern shore of the Olympic peninsula in Washington State. The day before the race, Funtanilla, 50, was halfway there when she realized she left her wallet at a coffee shop. So she turned around, picked up the wallet, and hit the road again. However, bad weather and high winds set in by the time she reached the Hood Canal Bridge, one of the only ways onto the Olympic peninsula, forcing the bridge to close. Around 8 p.m., she pulled the plug and headed back home.

Then, in early February, Funtanilla was set to run the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama, a race that’s dear to her heart. But she mixed up the start time. On race day morning, she was still in her car as the race started. “Little did I know that those two races would foreshadow the rest of the year,” she says.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, swelling unemployment rates, wildfires, hurricanes, and ongoing incidents of police brutality and racial injustice, 2020 has been a year. Our lives have been turned head over heels.

For runners, while running was never canceled, 2020 changed our relationship with the sport. For some, running became an even more important lifeline in a topsy-turvy time. For others, they finally had the freedom to slow down—taking the time to fully recover from injury or experiment with new ways to engage with the sport. Still for others, it has reminded them why they love running in the first place. In the end, the year has had hidden blessings and unexpected lessons.

Woman doing leg stretches outdoors.
Photo: Getty Images

Lesson 1: Saying Goodbye to Pressure

In early 2020, Sashea Lawson was training for a half-marathon. It was supposed to be her first 13.1-mile race since having her second child in March 2019. Even though the runner from West Orange, New Jersey, didn’t have specific goals, she still felt pressure to train and perform. When she started to experience knee pain, followed by getting sick, the pressure doubled.

Lawson liked races and the accountability that came with training. Plus, she used to run with a group before having kids and everyone always had a race on the calendar. “There was a little peer pressure, like you’d feel left out if you didn’t sign up for a race too,” she says. Eventually, racing just became part of her routine, regularly participating in 10 or more events a year.

Like Lawson, many runners always have a race on the horizon. But a packed schedule can be a recipe for overtraining and burnout. “Athletes are very good at being switched on all the time, but don’t have good off switches,” says Erika Westhoff, a sports psychologist and mental skills coach. And sometimes, you need to press pause. “These breaks allow both physical and emotional space to recover and replenish so we can put our full load into training again,” Westhoff says.

The first step is acknowledging that you need a break, says Westhoff. She suggests doing something besides running and prioritizing rest. Take all the races off the calendar, and you may come back with a whole new appreciation for the sport. As word spread of the novel coronavirus, Lawson canceled that half-marathon.

She says it felt like a weight was lifted off her shoulders. She didn’t run for 50 days, instead turning to spinning. When she did return, it was to honor Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was killed by two white men while out for a run near his home in Georgia. “Those 2.23 miles felt way harder than it should have,” Lawson says. But she committed to showing up for as long as her body felt good, whether that was one mile or three.

“Seeing everything that was happening in the country and the world, I realized my pace and distance didn’t matter,” Lawson says. With no races to train for, she let herself slow down and appreciate her surroundings. “It’s shocking how good I felt once I started doing that,” she says. Now, instead of coming back from a run feeling defeated, she returns home with a big smile on her face. “I didn’t get into running for the races. I got into it because I like the way it made me feel. I lost sight of that for a while,” she says.

Racing is just a small portion of the sport—a lesson that’s truly sunk in over the past year. Mary Johnson, running coach and founder of Lift Run Perform, says it’s the biggest, most positive paradigm shift she’s witnessed in her clients. “We’ve seen a lot of, ‘Screw it. Let’s do it if I feel good and if I don’t, I won’t do it,’” she says. “That’s a really healthy perspective, and as a result, people are staying healthy.”

For Funtanilla, on top of her debacles early in the year, her ultra in Italy was canceled, too. While she lamented not having the option to race, she realized she doesn’t need an official finish line, bib, or medal. She can make up her own goals and routes right near her home or farther afield. “This year has accelerated this deeper sense of gratitude for simple movement. I can put on my shorts and shoes, lace up, and get out the door and move, not be in pain. How amazing is that?” she says.

Lesson 2: Freedom to Experiment

Some have called this year “The Great Pause.” Westhoff can’t think of another period in her lifetime when something as big as a pandemic has forced everyone and everything to stop. In turn, it’s taken the competitive aspect out of running; people are taking care of themselves, experimenting, and really figuring out what works for them.

Take Theodora Blanchfield, 37, from Santa Monica, California. A combination of depression and grief made running extremely hard for her over the past few years. Yet, she couldn’t let go of “Old Theodora,” the woman who thrived on logging mile after mile. It sent her down a negative spiral: She was dissatisfied with running, so running continued to feel unsatisfactory.

In the spring, a friend suggested doing whatever she needed to just enjoy running again. “If I ever want to get back to running marathons or any level of running fitness, I need to meet myself where I am,” she says. Because running a mile sounded daunting, Blanchfield tried incorporating walk-run intervals. The three-minute run segments were easier to handle mentally.

She also formed a virtual run club with a few friends, mixing in solo runs with guided runs on the Peloton app. The online camaraderie helped her reconnect with the social aspect of the sport, a big reason why she fell in love with running in the first place. “I could connect with other people during a very isolating time. It was something to talk about with friends other than COVID,” she says. And bit by bit, running felt easier. “Since real races have been taken out of the picture, that self-imposed pressure of feeling like I needed to get all the way back into marathon shape was taken away,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself the same grace without COVID.”

Johnson says she’s seen a similar evolution in other runners (and herself). “Right now, we’re allowing the path to be nonlinear,” she says. “If we don’t give ourselves permission now, when are we going to?” As a result, people are prioritizing what feels good.

Dropping expectations finally allowed Jessica Bayze, 37, to enjoy running. For most of her life, she wanted to run 30 minutes straight, but she never really tried. With shelter-in-place orders, though, Bayze had nowhere to go. Her husband recently purchased a treadmill, so she figured, why not?

At the beginning of 2020, the Sacramento, California, resident couldn’t run two minutes. She started a six-week interactive beginner’s plan. However, she fixated on the idea of a 10-minute-per-mile pace. It’s what she thought was a “normal” pace, but it was too fast for her. She began to dread her morning runs, where she’d inevitably have to slow down the treadmill. “You feel like a failure because you can’t keep up with a number that’s totally arbitrary,” she says.

One day, the coach reminded the group they could lower the intensity anytime. A light bulb went off. Bayze realized that everyone doesn’t have to run the same pace, and she let go of the 10-minute-mile standard. “It gave me permission to run at a pace where I was comfortable,” she says. “I’m closer to a 15-minute mile pace. I’m OK with it because you know what? I’m still running.”

Focusing on feeling good also led some runners, like Ash Walsh, to unexpected breakthroughs. When the pandemic hit, the 33-year old ultrarunner from Georgia experienced extreme anxiety. “I hated not knowing what’s next. For a couple of weeks, the unknown really wrecked me,” she says. Every workout was tough, and she couldn’t get her heart rate under control. Westhoff says it makes sense that the lack of structure and uncertainty would cause unease. Instead of relying on external sources of motivation, she says runners need to find an internal source. Incorporating different experiments and process-related goals can help.

It took a few weeks, but Walsh finally surrendered the need for control. “That’s when things started to get fun,” she says. While hunkered down at home, Walsh created treadmill challenges, working her way up to climbing several thousand feet in a workout. After the lockdowns eased up, she headed back to the trails but needed to have fun. She stopped wearing a watch and downgraded to a flip phone. “It was like an Eat, Pray, Love thing every time I went into the mountains,” she says.

In her 11 years of running, Walsh says she has never felt this fit. She’s run more than eight ultra distances, something she would never do in a typical year.

“Without fear of wrecking a race, I’ve pushed my boundaries in training and made huge gains in pace and skill.” She also ran the woman’s fastest known time (FKT) for the Tour de la Conte in the Great Smoky Mountains, covering 51 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain along a gnarly, technical route. “It was for me, my own personal joy,” Walsh says. “I didn’t have to wait for a certain date or time like a race.”

Female runner taking a break.
Photo: Getty Images

Lesson 3: Becoming a Well-Rounded Athlete

We all aspire to be a balanced runner, someone who cross-trains, strength trains on the reg, fills our plate with nourishing food, and gets adequate rest and recovery. The reality? Not so much. Between work, family, friends, workouts, group runs, and races, we’re never left with enough time to take care of the details.

Johnson says that we’re gaining extra room in our training life. “You’re not training, tapering, racing, recovering, and ramping back up. People are capitalizing on this and focusing on things that they maybe aren’t as good at,” she says. “Now, with no timelines, people have stepped away from running to focus on strength or recovery. As a result, they’re running stronger than ever.”

That was the case for Valerie Canubas, 29, from Montclair, New Jersey. During her annual physical in early 2020, her doctor suggested she tinker with her nutrition. With her plan for a March half-marathon scratched and with no restaurants or happy hours to tempt her, it was the perfect time. She mixed up her fitness routine too, adding strength training, HIIT cardio, and kickboxing while focusing on easy runs to build her running base. She scheduled a weekly foam rolling appointment on her calendar. “I miss the social part of being at an in-person race, but I feel so much stronger now that I took the time to be a well-rounded athlete,” she says. In August, Canubas shaved more than three minutes off her 5K time from February, setting a PR along the way.

It makes sense that runners would focus on the little things. This piece of their training world is something they could control during a turbulent time, Westhoff says. Plus, for some women, they now could tag-team with partners and family members for childcare. The found time allowed Bridget Chamberlin, 32, to add in a dynamic warm-up and spend 15 minutes foam rolling and performing physical therapy exercises post-run. “It’s been easier to ingrain into my post-run routine because I have the childcare flexibility,” says the Chicago resident. “Once life gets back to ‘normal’ and my husband is commuting, I’m motivated to get up 15 minutes earlier to keep it going.”

Chamberlin has also used this time to work on her mental game. She’s used the abundance of virtual races to hone in on creative ways to tap into the internal motivation to push herself. She keyed into past race day memories and envisioned all the other runners out completing their virtual races. “My mindset to racing changed. I think they’ll make me a mentally stronger runner, long-term,” she says.

Lesson 4: Taking Time to Heal

No one ever wants to be injured, and during normal times, it’s often a rush to recover from an injury in time to be race-ready. “Now, you can take time, not just to do physical therapy, but pay attention to things like nutrition, strength training, and all the other things we neglect because we’re rushing back to a training cycle,” says Johnson.

Kimberly Roach from Cleveland knows this too well. She lost all of 2019 to plantar fasciitis, so 2020 was supposed to be her year. The pandemic wiped out her racing plans, but in turn, it allowed Roach to take a slow and deliberate comeback to running pain-free.

She started off walking before progressing to walk-run intervals. She was back to running longer stretches in early June. Roach also incorporated spinning, strength training, yoga, and regular recovery work into her schedule. She worked with a sports dietitian too. And a funny thing happened. Roach noticed she was faster. In the past few months, she set personal bests at 5K, five miles, 10K, and half-marathon. “Now, I’m running consistently five times a week and am faster at 51 than I was at 31,” she says.

Just as important: The slower pace of life allowed injured runners time to grieve. “It’s easy for athletes, who are conditioned to be tough and non-emotional, to just ‘do the work’ and not take time to acknowledge the impact of an injury. The pandemic left space for emotions to processed,” says Westhoff. By working through emotions in a more holistic way, Westhoff says runners are likely to carry less negativity forward, which means more passion to pursue goals and less burnout.

For Caroline Su, 36, from Arlington, Massachusetts, that has meant accepting what she can’t change and building upon what she can. Su had foot surgery in January 2020 and was supposed to begin physical therapy in early March when COVID-19 shuttered everything. While past experience has taught her not to rush back from injury, it was still hard not to do the one thing she loved—run.

But the “pandemic season” gave Su time to accept her circumstances and realize she’s not defined by one sport or her performance in that sport. It’s also fostered creativity and breakthroughs in other areas of her life, like nurturing Diverse We Run, the Instagram community she founded to promote better representation in the sport, and building new collaborations. “While I would not plan for injuries, changes of plan—or a pandemic—have taught me and helped me grow to be a stronger and more robust person,” she says. “It reinforces that even in the midst of dark, difficult, unplanned time, there can still be good. We can still live.”