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Coping With COVID

Whilst the global COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably caused a wide variety of societal and economic challenges and will have an immeasurable impact over years to come, it has also provided an opportunity for athletes to reflect on their position in their sport, reassess their goals and perhaps even redefine their ‘why’. Countless races were cancelled or postponed, training facilities were closed and in certain countries people were confined to training indoors. In this article we look at the three phases of coping we experienced during this time –dealing with uncertainty, rediscovering our ‘why’, and getting ready to get ready.

Dealing With Uncertainty

As things began shutting down and races started dropping off the calendar, a lot of athletes were left wondering what their year was going to look like and why they were still training. Whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, it’s tough to go out and flog yourself in training without knowing what you’re preparing for. People dealt with this uncertainty in different ways, some cyclists found themselves going on ‘soul rides’ riding from dusk to dawn, others who were stuck inside set themselves the challenge of racing or doing a virtual Everesting on Zwift. Swimmers had no pools so were forced to find new ways to train, and some runners who had been preparing for a race went and ran their PB alone in the streets. Others found themselves sitting on the couch binge-watching Netflix series, or turning to sourdough bread and home cooking to fill their spare time. Whatever the choice was, there was no right or wrong answer. In these absurd and uncertain times, everyone had their own way of coping and dealing with their situation.

Rediscovering ‘why’

Speaking from my personal experience, I had prepared all winter for Ironman Vichy in August. When the race was eventually cancelled, I’d racked up more KM running and cycling over the winter and spring than ever before and found myself stranded with a great level of fitness but no races or objectives. It became mentally taxing just to tie up my shoelaces or jump in the saddle, why was I training if there was going to be no races all year? This led to some sporadic training weeks, a lot of Netflix and countless packets of M&Ms and Lindt chocolate being consumed (other brands are available). Eventually, my solution was to take a fortnight totally off structured training, with no plans and no sessions. I simply went out and did what I felt like doing, some days this was a 15’ swim in the cold Lac Leman, another day it was a 200km bike ride through the Swiss Alps, and on others it was just a round of golf. I found myself channelling my energy towards the ‘controllables’ i.e. what I could control and ignoring the ‘uncontrollables’ i.e. everything that was outside my grasp. This was freeing, as I regained a relative sense control despite chaos reigning all around me. I found myself rediscovering the pure joy of sport. Enjoying being in the moment, training and exercising just because I could, taking pictures of the great outdoors and doing new things that I usually didn’t give myself time for. Knowing all along that normality would return eventually, I’d turned the uncertainty into an opportunity to disconnect and recharge my mental batteries.

Getting ready to get ready

Moving through this period of uncertainty, we always knew that there would be races eventually, that a day would come where we could toe the line again and test ourselves against our competition. Over the past couple weeks, it seems to be emerging in Europe that this time will be at the end of the summer and in early autumn. As this light appeared at the end of the tunnel a new phase of training was invented, the phase of ‘Getting ready to get ready’. What does this mean? This means, doing enough training to work on your weaknesses and progress as an athlete, but without burning any mental or physical matches that you will need later in the year. In endurance sport, getting ready for an objective usually takes 12 to 16 weeks of specific work, you can’t just train hard year-round and hope to keep progressing forever. The ‘getting ready to get ready’ mentality meant that we knew there was an objective down the line, and that as soon it was confirmed we would be able to switch into full training mode without having to go through an entire phase of base training again. Shifting into this ‘getting ready to get ready’ phase involved creating a new routine and finding a training load that you could sustain over a long period without sustaining too much fatigue. In practice this resembled a winter training block, except that with the nice weather and longer days we were able to enjoy the great outdoors. The flexibility afforded by the ‘getting ready to get ready’ phase also led to a certain mental freedom, as the pressure to perform in the short term was lifted and you could enjoy doing things you’re passionate about but that you don’t usually have time for.

Lessons learnt

- Don’t flee from uncertainty – use it as an opportunity to reset, reassess and re-plan. Situations like this affect everyone in a different way and there are no right or wrong answers.

- Control the controllables – don’t fret over things you can’t control, focus on what you can control, and the rest will look after itself. You’re not alone in this situation.

- Define your why – consider why you do your sport and clearly define your objectives; this can only be beneficial in the long run.

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