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Despite millions of people forced to self isolate at home due to the spread of COVID-19, we’re living remarkably similar shared experiences. Cities, communities, and families are physically apart, yet united by the same challenges, fears, needs and habits. These commonalities run the gamut from nuisances of toilet paper shortages to a profound and renewed appreciation for sweatpants, all the way to important things like conference calls with friends and family.
Many runners are also trying to stay in shape. Under the confines of shelter-in-place, working out requires extra creativity and self-motivation. For those without a treadmill or bike trainer at home, few training plans and exercise routines make sense, at least without some adjustment. And, because health recommendations vary by state, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan that we all can use.
“There are some things that almost anyone can do, but it depends on what you deem as safe. I don’t think runners want to add a burden to the healthcare system right now. For instance, I’m personalizing my athlete plans for how dense the area is around their home. With some creativity you can do a lot with a set of stairs or short loops around the neighborhood,” says Anna Mae Flynn, elite coach and professional ultra runner for Hoka One One.
Flynn’s coaching business, Mountain Endurance Life, supports dozens of runners across the country, each with unique goals and backgrounds. “Right now I’m encouraging my athletes to push their goals further out. With many races canceled and more likely to come, it’s easy to be let down. Instead, I’m encouraging everyone to see this as an opportunity to work on their aerobic baseline.”
One of the top ultra runners in the world, Flynn’s had her own disappointment this spring, losing the chance to reclaim titles at both Speedgoat and Lake Sonoma. “I’m still signed up for a couple races closer to home, but realistically I doubt we race until the fall, or later. I see this as an opportunity for all of us, myself included, to get a lot of easy miles in, plus a mix of mobility and strength.”
Flynn coaches using the Training Peaks platform, which is based on heart rate. “My role is to give my athletes an understanding of why we’re backing off, ramping up, or holding steady. It’s all based on how their body is handling the current workload,” says Flynn. Athletes start with a few months of consistent training before they take a threshold test to establish out their heart rate zones. “I prefer this method because it leads to quicker fitness gains and they can really see the progress they are making.”
Flynn has been forced to get creative as a coach, admitting that not all of her athletes have access to trails or places they feel safe to run. “It’s been a challenge. Each program is different and will continue to evolve. For my athletes I recommend a couple cheap purchases that make a big impact on their fitness: a weight vest, Therabands, and a chest heart rate monitor because it’s more accurate than a watch.”
Step 1: Build a Base
“One workout won’t make or break a running program. There is no silver bullet. Instead, pull out a calendar and give yourself three months to gradually build a base. Focus on time on your feet and keeping your heart rate low” said Flynn, also suggesting runs at times and places less busy, even if it means sometimes doing laps around your neighborhood and starting from your house.
“The build can feel slow at first, but that’s kind of the point. I recommend my athletes add 30 minutes of aerobic volume each week. That’s it. Halfway through the three months you might feel really tired and lethargic. This fatigue is good, just remember to give yourself a down week” says Flynn.
This plan starts with an understanding of how much you normally run weekly. Flynn advises looking back on Strava (or similar platforms) to get an understanding of your current volume, before jumping in. “There’s no reason to rush the process. No reason to do mile repeats, hill repeats, or intervals right away. You only need a few short hill bursts to keep your fast-twitch muscles. For example, once a week do 10 reps of 30 seconds uphill and on a different run, finish with fast strides, 5 reps of 20 seconds.”
Step 2: Mobility
“Now is also a great time to improve flexibility, which will help prevent injuries” said Flynn, who credits a lot of her success to bodyweight workouts and stretching with resistance bands. “Despite being quite simple, bands aid most of basic stretches, helping activate glutes, stabilizers, and the rest of your body.”
Flynn doesn’t prescribe a specific mobility routine for her athletes but instead offers suggestions on how to work leg muscles independently. “Bands help with nearly all your leg stretches – thighs, hamstrings, hips, stabilizers, and quads. I recommend doing these almost daily, to have a larger impact. Try to get into a habit of 30 minutes each day. I suggest stretching after your run, but before will work, too.”
Flynn recommends around an hour of yoga each week. “Online yoga classes vary a lot, and many of them are free. Find one that works for you, whether it’s slow, fast, or restorative. Eventually, as you get more flexible, try something harder.”
Step 3: Strength
The last part of the formula is strength training, and Flynn emphasized you don’t need a squat rack or free weights to get in a good strength workout. “You can do more than most people expect with just your body weight. If you don’t have the right technique, jumping into free weights can be more harmful than good, so I start my athletes with the basics – lunges, single-leg squats, box jumps, hip thrusts, squat jumps and other leg building exercises you can do anywhere” says Flynn.
Don’t rush right into strength training while starting a running program. “New athletes should start with base building and mobility, then add strength. Wait a month, then add one weekly strength workout and one core workout. After another month, bump up to two of each every week. This helps reduce the chances of getting hurt. Core workouts can be as short as 10 minutes. Runners often underestimate how important a strong core is!”
Andy Cochrane is a freelance writer, photographer and producer that lives out of his Tacoma with his dog Bea. They spend their time searching for trails to run, mountains to ski and the best ramen in the West.