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Running Lessons from Social-Isolation

Five habits we’ll want to hold on to when our stay-at-home time is over.

Boy, the lustre of social-isolation life fades quickly, doesn’t it? Every other sentence is prefaced by, “When this is over…” and we talk with longing about getting the 20-miler band back together, celebrating on the patio, squeezing in another chair. 

But hold up there. Not everything about staying at home is bad. You’re saving money like a boss on commuting and entertainment. And pants. The air is clear, wildlife frolics in pristine meadows. And dogs—in and out all day long, no separation or anxiety—have never been happier. And for us bipeds too, some good things have happened. Quiet, small joys, and hidden strengths have been discovered that probably wouldn’t have at the unrelenting pace of “normal” life. 

This is an unprecedented opportunity to completely reassess our lives and our running, and the luxury of being intentional about what our new normal life looks like. Before we abandon everything social-isolation and jump wholesale back onto the treadmill of life, we might want to hang onto some of the good things that have come out of our pandemic meditation.

1. Getting Outside in Any Weather

Shot of feet running through mud and rain.
Photo: Getty Images

Yes, when it’s sleeting outside, we miss the gym. But as someone once said, there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. There’s documentation that being outdoors, sleet on your face and all, is beneficial in many ways. Dealing with weather builds mental toughness. It encourages creative problem solving: up and out by 5:30 to avoid the heat, or run one way with the wind to take the bite out of windchill. And there’s the biophilia hypothesis—humans innately seek a connection to nature, and that being outdoors eases anxiety and makes us happier. Some doctors are even prescribing outdoor activity. When gyms reopen sometime in the future, you might want to hang onto your weather-be-damned daily dose of outdoors.

2. Creative Exploration

That popular path around the lake? Too crowded. Distancing has taught runners to forge new routes—even shifting one block off the old favorite means thinner crowds and a surprisingly fresh view. If you’ve run the same routes for decades, a long run or a hill workout is going to require research, maybe a Maps consult. You might discover unfamiliar neighborhoods, landmarks, and history about your hometown. When this is over, add those routes to the old favorites: Having an extensive repertoire will keep your running fresh, quarantined or not.

3. Family Bonding

Photo: Greg Rosenke / Unsplash

Stay-at-home ensures that most elusive of events—family togetherness. Younger kids are biking along while their mom runs, or tackling a stair or online workout together. The elementary school set, like dogs, have never seemed happier or less stressed. And that’s something to really consider. High schoolers are deigning to run with a member of their family, and finding it not awful. Family runs necessarily involve compromise—on pace, distance, route, conversation. That’s not hard when there are no races on the schedule, no season, no training plan. But when those individual races, seasons, and training schedules return, we might want to hang onto some of that fam time, and that willingness to compromise. Particularly, parents of kids eighth grade and under should have a think and talk with their child before they leap back into a sports schedule that requires eating “dinner” in the car five nights a week.

4. Independence

The flip side to family togetherness on our stay-at-home album is working out solo. As motivating as the Tuesday evening group run is, as much joy and knowledge as it adds to your life, learning how to get ‘er done on your own is a vital skill. Motivation to get out there, pace, confidence, and encouraging self-talk when things get tough—that’s all on you. You are going to need all of that, in spades, for as long as you’re taking up space on this planet.

5. Intrinsic Motivation

A whole NYC Marathon’s-full of people are motivated by a race, the social aspects of training with a team, or by the pull of competition. And that’s great, but those are all external factors. As has been demonstrated, external factors can go away, and you’re left with…what?  

Heading out the door every day, by yourself, no race on the horizon, may have seemed pointless at first but, again, the lessons of social-isolation are subtle. Finishing up a solitary 6-mile loop, picking up the mail, the dog thumping his tail against the couch cannot compare to the roar and rush of crossing the finish line at Boston, but it’s given some structure to your day and gotten your blood circulating. You’re not getting out of shape. Metaphorically and literally, you’re putting one foot in front of the other. 

Building intrinsic motivation—maybe that’s developing a kick or avoiding injury or simply appreciating the movement of running— is key to resilience. Sure, you may be the first to sign up for a race when races become a thing again, but hang onto your intrinsic goals. They’ll get you through whatever the winding road ahead has in store.