Despite the stress and uncertainty that is affecting every runner navigating the coronavirus response—including tracks and parks limiting access, race cancellations, and stay-at-home orders—there are several mental strategies and coping mechanisms that can help.
Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), is on the frontlines when it comes to providing support for athletes’ mental health. For weeks, Olympic hopefuls were faced with a looming question: How would they train safely and compete at the Games during a pandemic?
When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the Tokyo Games would be postponed to 2021, many U.S. athletes felt relief in response to the decision, even if their Olympic dreams would be put on hold. By virtual means, McCann and the USOPC team have taken a purposeful approach to assisting athletes and coaches through the changes.
“It’s about effectively coping with what we’ve got, just starting to sort of mentally and physically cross-train, and make sure that we are as healthy as we can be right now,” McCann said.
McCann shared the mental strategies and coping mechanisms he’s used to aid Olympic hopefuls through this time. As the pandemic continues to affect everyone in different ways, runners at all levels can benefit from his advice.
Implement behavior that positively affects the body and the brain.
During this time of disruption, McCann suggests that everyone prioritize sleep with specific bedtimes and wake up times that mirror their schedule prior to stay-at-home orders. “Stick to that pattern even if you don’t have to, just follow that structure for the positive impact on mood and health,” he said.
While runners are dealing with race cancellations and postponements, maintaining exercise—even at a lower intensity—is key right now. “Make sure that there’s enough physical activity so your body and your brain can adapt because that’s also been shown time and time again to have an important impact on positive mood,” McCann said.
In adhering to social distancing rules, most training groups cannot practice together. But planning ahead and sticking to a daily routine can curb the stress of running solo.
“Even though you don’t have to do anything at a particular time, it turns out that having to decide every day what to do, when to do it, creates stress,” McCann said. “So if you have a structure like you did before, it helps a lot to relax you.”
Have emotional, cognitive, and purposeful intention.
As the coronavirus outbreak progresses, McCann is addressing the range of emotions that Olympic hopefuls are experiencing and “making sure athletes have permission to feel how they feel.” In fact, all runners—from a high schooler whose season was cut short to somebody planning to run their first half marathon—can benefit from being open with their emotions.
McCann wants runners to know that “it’s normal to feel frustration and anger and irritation or loss in response to the changes. A lot of athletes express relief that it’s okay to not be on the same path as everyone else all the time, even though generally they’re pretty optimistic and forward-focused.”
McCann is encouraging athletes to direct their attention to ways they can build themselves up outside of their sport. Whether it’s leaning into relationships at home or taking up a new hobby like music or art, “you’re building in [activities] reminding yourself that you’re more than just a runner.”
Western States winner Magda Boulet is leaning into her cooking skills. Emily Sisson is turning her training journal into a gratitude journal. Olympic Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk continues to crochet her own beanies for Etsy. And world champion Jenny Simpson even adopted a puppy while in quarantine.
To help manage stress, McCann suggests that athletes implement a mindfulness practice into their routine. The USOPC is providing classes, individual sessions, and online resources where athletes can find a practice that works for them. “It’s a great stress-reducer and it helps you calm and center,” he said.
Prioritize social connections.
With so many options for virtual communication, the USOPC is encouraging its athletes to stay socially connected while they are in isolation. Whether you’re competing on an NCAA team or run solo with a remote coach, it’s important to maintain those ties.
“We’re recommending if they do have someone who they can work with in terms of mental skills, that they reach out and talk….and be able to open up about the stuff that maybe they’re not comfortable talking about with everybody, make sure they have an outlet to express things that they need to vent about,” McCann said.
Depending on the household, McCann suggests people embrace those around them through shared activities like games, chores, or meal times.
“It’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to build really wonderful connections with family….if you have an opportunity to build strong bonds in the situation you’re in, wherever you are, to take advantage of it,” he said.