These are sad, scary, stressful times. We’re worried about our loved ones. We’re worried about ourselves. We’re worried about our jobs and financial well-being. Amidst all this stress and distress, our usual coping outlets—training, racing, and group rides— are being disrupted or canceled.
Depending upon your circumstances and where you live, you may still be able to get out for a safe, solo ride or social distance spin with a close friend. Or maybe you’re a single parent at home with three wall-climbing kids and your only outlet, when you can get it, is a quick trainer spin or core workout. No matter who you are, your new normal is anything but.
For those of us who use endurance sports to anchor ourselves and manage our mental health during the best of times, having our routines disrupted during this enormously stressful (and sometimes surreal) period is an added blow to our well-being.
While getting exercise may feel insignificant in the big picture of a global pandemic, for long-term health and wellness of not just our individual selves, but society at large, self care is very important during these stressful times, says Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
“To save lives, we’re doing the right thing right now,” Alderman says. “The work on our mental health also needs to begin immediately, though, or the risk of other problems with depression, addiction, and alcohol abuse will develop that could be very long lasting.”
So while flattening this curve is paramount, taking care of yourself right now will help prevent a spike in mental health problems that linger for years after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has run its course.
Here’s what experts who specialize in both exercise and mental health recommend.
Let Yourself Feel the Feelings
We tell our kids that you can’t control your feelings, but you can control what you do with those feelings. As adults, we tend to tell ourselves that we shouldn’t even be feeling the feelings. That ultimately makes us feel worse, setting up a vicious cycle of sadness, anger, and guilt that can be hard to break.
“People are feeling an enormous amount of disappointment and loss as their worlds are turned upside down,” says Marshall Mintz, Psy.D., consulting sports psychologist for Atlantic Health System’s Atlantic Sports Health and managing partner of Springfield Psychological Associates.
“You can’t just shake it off and go on. Unless you address it, it lingers like an app playing in the background on your phone, draining your energy,” Mintz says.
“Instead of trying to harden up, sit with it a bit, acknowledge your loss, and accept your grief,” he says. “Connecting with those emotions allows you to deal with them, so you can think rationally and adaptively in a healthy, problem-solving way and pivot to your alternatives and move forward.”
Move for Mental Health
If you typically take a ride, try to maintain that habit while adhering to the CDC guidelines, Alderman says. That may mean going alone, being on the trainer, or even putting your trainer in the yard or on the porch if you can’t leave your premises.
“Whatever it is, do it and don’t feel guilty at all. This is the time we need to be active. By spending time taking care of ourselves, we are staying healthy and helping society,” Alderman says.
This is especially important for endurance athletes who thrive off endorphins, says professional triathlete Jennifer Lentzke, R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Salt Lake City Wellness, where she specializes in nutrition, training, and mental health, particularly eating disorders.
“Sitting around too much can lead to depression, hopelessness, and general lack of direction that trickles into other aspects of your life,” she says. “Do something every single day. It helps regulate the neurotransmitters in your brain.”
Set Fresh Challenges
As endurance athletes, we can be a little (okay, maybe a lot) stuck in our training ways, but this is a good time to broaden your fitness horizons, Lentzke says.
“When this started, I was searching for a lap pool so I could still swim. There was nothing and I was down to my last straw, Googling places and even searching on Rentler for apartments with pools where I might be able to swim,” Lentzke says. “Finally, my boyfriend was like, ‘Jen, let it go.’ It’s funny how our view can get very microscopic. This is a chance to broaden our perspective. You don’t have to force something that’s not meant to be right now,” she says.
Endurance athletes tend to be very goal-oriented and chances are your goals are pretty up in the air right now, so it’s a good time to set some new, short-term goals. It can be as simple as holding planks or doing squats, Mintz says.
“Log your time and work on improving. Set quantitative goals and challenge yourself to find ways to be more active around your home,” Mintz says.
Your goal might even be finding new workouts, he says. “There are dozens, if not thousands, of exercise routines you can find online. Make it a goal to find new ways to get your heart rate up or new ways of building leg strength,” he says.
Those goals won’t just get you through the here and now, but they also may be useful down the line when you find yourself out of your normal routine for more mundane reasons.
[Find 52 weeks of tips and motivation, with space to fill in your mileage and favorite routes, with the Bicycling Training Journal.]
Take the Opportunity to Reassess
Among all the disappointment and sadness of the shut downs and cancellations, you actually might be feeling quietly relieved—not for the pandemic of course, but for the break. That’s okay, too, Lentzke says.
“I had a client who said, ‘You know, I breathed a sigh of relief,’” when her event was cancelled,” Lentzke says. “The silver lining here is that this has stripped down everything: the obligation, the social influence, the ego, and doing things for other’s approval. It’s allowing people to get introspective and figure out where they really are on their journey. Some people are super tired and need a break from the training and racing cycle.”
If you’ve had nagging injuries or have been a little burned out, this is an opportunity to fully heal and let your mojo return.
“It’s a good time to get down to the core of why you do what you do and focus on what will enhance your well-being,” Lentzke says. “You might come out of this with an entirely new mindset and sense of purpose.”
Stay Connected with Your Community
Isolation is one of the worst things for mental health, so be sure you stay in touch with the people who are important to you, Lentzke says. Even if you can’t see them, make human contact and call them or stay connected in other ways, like meeting up on Zwift.
“If you find yourself feeling off, find someone you can talk to,” Lentzke says. “Racing and training can be a very, very strong mask for other underlying issues that go unaddressed. If you’re struggling with troubling feelings, find yourself not able to eat normally, or otherwise not okay mentally, reach out to a professional, who can help you address that while you may be out of your normal routine and have some time.”
By taking time for all the self-care you need now, you’ll be better equipped to come out stronger, mentally and physically, once it’s time to start moving toward normalcy.
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