Life is a Lot Right Now. Here’s How to Know if Running Will Help or Hurt

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

It’s not you. It’s…just…everything. Self-care may seem like a laughable notion right now, we know.

Let’s face it, we’re living in some historically trying times. We’re 10 months into a pandemic that has robbed us of community and connection with friends and family. Sickness, death, and grief are everywhere. It’s dark and cold outside. The news is violent and scary. Racism and civil unrest are tearing the nation apart. Black and Hispanic women are experiencing extremely high levels of unemployment. Mothers are leaving the workforce in droves, often to care for kids whose schools are closed.

When we rang in 2021 (shockingly, that was only two weeks ago), we had a little bit of hope for a fresh start. For most of us, it hasn’t materialized, and that alone can make us anxious or angry or downright depressed. Emotions are heavy and extreme right now, no matter what our individual circumstances are. Sometimes going for a run or doing a workout is self-care. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes it’s not even an option.

While many runners are thriving—knocking out big miles and acing the virtual racing game—others can barely get out the door for a 10-minute shuffle, either due to depleted energy levels, lack of motivation, or other circumstances beyond their control. When is it the right time to force a run, and when can you cut yourself some slack? How can you rally and when should you rest? If you can’t make it happen even when you want to, how can you cope?

6 Self-Care Strategies for Trail Runners

We asked the experts to weigh in on healthy coping mechanisms to help keep us moving forward.

Running isn’t a magic bullet.

If you’re looking through Instagram, you’ll see a lot of people who say “running is the only thing that’s keeping me sane,” or similar sentiments. And that’s probably true to some extent for a lot of us. It’s not a replacement for therapy, but it can be a mood-booster or a good reset when we’re feeling stuck in a doomsday spiral. But running isn’t always the right answer, all of the time, says Rachel Gersten, a licensed therapist at Viva Wellness and a runner in New York.

“Whenever you’re going through a hard time, like a breakup or loss or, you know, a national coup, do whatever you need to do,” she says. “My rules are: nothing that gets you arrested and nothing that gets you hospitalized—after that, it’s all fair game because these are times that nobody’s lived through before. There’s no right way to get through this; there’s no blueprint.”

Sometimes it isn’t clear whether following your training schedule is the right call for the day. Gersten says if running generally makes you feel better, try to focus on that feeling rather than the miles ahead of you. But if you’re just feeling guilty from seeing everybody else’s posts about killing their workouts, you’re probably not listening to your own needs.

“The only time I feel ‘normal’ is when I’m on the run, but it’s still hard to leave the house sometimes,” Gersten says. “Try getting out there for 10 minutes and if you still want to quit, you can go home. Sometimes you need to crawl into your own hole and just get through it—if you listen, your body will tell you if it needs a nap or a piece of pizza or if you just need to move. Do what feels right to you.”

Neely Spence Gracey, a professional runner based in Boulder, Colorado, who coaches athletes of all abilities, encourages her runners to heed the signs that they should push a workout to another time or even take an extra rest day. Many of her clients right now are rearranging their schedules day-to-day, she says.

“I just had a client last week who had a four-mile easy run on her schedule and she ended up going for a 30-minute walk instead. She was just feeling exhausted,” Spence Gracey says. “She said, ‘The news is just completely killing my vibe and I need a couple of days to find some routine and normalcy.’”

Some signs that you need to back off? Spence Gracey suggests paying attention to extreme fatigue, lack of sleep, high anxiety, high heart rate—all signs your body is under stress. Substitute a walk for a run, or if you were planning on a hard effort, shorten the distance and go easy.

“If you push through when you’re not feeling it. You’re just going to dig yourself in a hole and lose confidence,” Spence Gracey says. “And both of those things are bad. I would way rather someone skip a workout than come out of one feeling miserable and frustrated.”

Mute and unfollow.

While we’re isolated, social media can be a nice way to feel more connected. It can also make you feel worse. If you just lost somebody to COVID-19 and you’re seeing reckless behavior like large group gatherings or vacation getaways, for example, it’s probably not a great idea to keep scrolling.

And if you can’t get outside for a run because it’s unsafe or you don’t have anybody to watch your kids, you may also want to look away from Instagram. But know that you’re not alone. Data reported by The 19th on Wednesday showed that 700,000 parents have left the workforce during the pandemic, two-thirds of which are mothers. Self-care for many parents seems like a far-off luxury.

“We’re all human. Maybe seeing a bunch of people crush virtual races in the middle of this madness makes you jealous,” Gersten says. “If what you’re seeing only puts you in a bad place and makes you feel like you’re not enough, then don’t see it. Avoid it. Mute or unfollow.”

Do what you can and grieve if you need to.

With so many people living with fewer resources, time, and support, running might be something you want to do, but you don’t have any way to do it. You can’t create more time in the day and you can’t leave your toddler at home alone, obviously. It’s an impossible situation.

“Give yourself time to grieve—not being able to get out there and do something for yourself, like running, is a loss, and it’s awful. You don’t have to pretend that it’s not,” Gersten says.

But after you move through that mourning, try to figure out what is possible given your situation and desire.

“Start asking, ‘OK, what can I do?’ If you have 20 minutes then run for 20 minutes,” Gersten says. “Can you ask for help, even if asking is difficult? Can you rearrange your schedule at all? Is it OK that running might not look exactly like it did when the world was normal?”

And if you can’t leave the house (or don’t want to), Spence Gracey suggests the many options for at-home classes on YouTube—anything from a 10-minute yoga session to a 30-minute high-intensity interval training class to 20 minutes of a core workout. Working on mobility and strength will also help keep your body strong and primed to gradually ease back into running when you can.

“Just a couple of minutes to move your body, clear your mind, and get your blood flowing will help,” Spence Gracey says. “You’re focusing on your breathing and that helps reduce anxiety.”

Check-in with yourself.

If you have the time and opportunity to go for a run but you’re sitting at your desk doomscrolling instead, you can coax yourself out of it if you want to.

“I know that the blanket advice is to just stop looking at social media and turn off the news, but some people get more anxious if they don’t see it and they have to know what’s going on,” Gersten says. “My advice is that when you’re not learning any new information, turn it off. Also be done with it if you’re starting to get stressed and anxious.”

Next step? Assess your body. Gersten suggests a subtle form of self-care for women (or anybody). Every time you go to the bathroom take a minute to look in the mirror and do a body scan. Are your hands and shoulders tense? Do you have a headache? Do you feel angry or joyful or scared? Are you clenching your jaw?

“Then adjust accordingly,” she says. “And if you’re not going into the bathroom several times a day, please drink some more water.”

This process allows you to stop yourself before three hours have passed on Twitter and you’re in a hole of existential dread, which of course makes it difficult to run.

“Catch it earlier before you figure out you’re having a bad day,” Gersten says. “If you’re filled with rage and have a massive headache it’s hard to get out of that place.”

Your energy is like pie.

You only have a finite amount to give to all the different areas that demand it. If you’re giving a lot of energy elsewhere, you have to adjust your running expectations.

“If you’re really caught up in the news and what’s going on—the stress and chaos that the world is in right now—you’re going to suffer in other areas,” Spence Gracey says. “And if you have kids, that’s a whole big piece of the pie, or a big project at work, or studying for a big exam. You have to be honest with yourself.”

Our bodies and minds don’t operate independently of each other, and most people are operating at a higher stress level than they normally do, even if they don’t realize it. So running a hard workout, which adds stress, may feel harder than it should. Or your body may feel depleted before you even put your shoes on because it’s been absorbing anxiety all day.

“I’ve had conversations with clients who don’t understand why they’re exhausted by 2 p.m. and they haven’t even left their house,” Gersten says. “It’s because the world is on fire. It’s exhausting to deal with this all the time and experience so much personal loss simultaneously.”

While some women are struggling with circumstances that seem more challenging than others, Gersten reminds us that we are all, in fact, struggling in ways we never have before.

“Nobody has been OK since March,” she says. “We’ve lost experiences, we’ve lost time, we’ve lost ‘normal.’ Nobody’s life has been unaffected by this. Thousands of people are dying every day—you see all those numbers, you see all the racism in America being shown more than it ever has before. So yes, your energy level is, like, negative 62 right now.”

Adjust, get creative, and slow down if you need to.

It might be difficult for anybody to find a “bright side” right now, but if there is one for runners, it’s that now is a time to try something new. Spence Gracey has seen her athletes take the opportunity to set all kinds of goals that they normally would have never thought about while chasing Boston qualifiers or personal records.

Some of her runners have tackled weekly mileage breakthroughs while others have decided to try trail running for a while. One woman decided she wanted to train to complete 35 miles on her 35th birthday.

“It’s neat to see people shift to something that’s personal and meaningful for them,” Spence Gracey says. “It’s an important time to see what lights a fire inside you and it may be very different than what your friends are doing.”

And it’s also a time to really evaluate what role running is playing in your life right now. For many, it has shifted to less emphasis on physical well-being and more emphasis on the mental benefits of fresh air, self-care, and movement.

“Right now is not the time to force it and push through hard days,” Spence Gracey says. “Save those kinds of internal battles and struggles for when it’s actually important to your training. We’re doing this for the routine and to maintain a base level of fitness so we’re ready to go when big goals and races are back.”

Gersten agrees—and adds that we should all stop judging ourselves for however we’re handling the cards we’ve been dealt.

“If you can PR in a virtual race right now, good for you—I am impressed,” she says. “But I think a lot of people are not in that space. Don’t let running add to your stress. If you’re 30 seconds per mile slower than you were six months ago, it’s fine. It’s all fine.”


Trending on Trail Runner Magazine

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada