At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many runners felt a loss of a sense of purpose with regard to their training routine, especially if virtual racing just wasn’t their thing. After all, what was the point without an actual goal race to shoot for? Not only that, but having your routine uprooted if you started working from home while also getting kids used to remote learning—chances are your level of discipline may have suffered to some degree, and those old racing nerves? Definitely back.
The pandemic certainly isn’t over, but many parts of the country have returned to some level of normalcy with increased vaccination rates. The running and racing community is one such example, as we saw with the World Marathon Majors and other large races going off (more or less) without a hitch this fall.
Even if you were disappointed to have your 2020 goal race canceled and were excited for it to happen this year, chances are you also dealt with race-day nerves that took you back to your first race ever. Those feelings are totally normal, but by anticipating them, you can avoid making certain mistakes that may impact your performance. Here’s what experts had to say about navigating a successful comeback and making your first race in over a year a great one.
Meet yourself where you are
If the pandemic led to a complete layoff from running, chances are you’re feeling all kinds of intimidated about starting from scratch and targeting a big goal. Make sure you’re not overextending yourself, and have some grace with your current fitness level. If you’re essentially starting from scratch and know you don’t have enough time to adequately train for a race that’s in a few weeks, that’s an example of when it would probably be a good idea to sit it out as you continue to build your mileage back up and remain healthy, says Lugdina Dieujuste, an Road Runners Club of America–certified run coach in Belleville, Illinois, and host of the Treadchic YouTube channel.
“Starting a routine after being so far removed from any activity is hard,” she says. “When you start running after you’ve stopped for a long time, you can get frustrated and it can affect your confidence when you realize you’re not exactly where you left off.”
As such, it’s important to be realistic, patient, and optimistic about getting back to where you were, Dieujuste says. She recommends waiting until you have at least six weeks of consistent running under your belt to go after a 5K and eight to 10 weeks for a 10K, and not increasing your total mileage by more than 10 percent each week, regardless of whether you have a time goal or just want to complete a race.
“Unless you have an injury, you’re more than capable of getting back to where you were, but you have to take the time to get there,” she says. “But you can’t expect to gain what you’ve lost in two years in two weeks.”
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Take the pressure off and run for the fun of it
According to Natalie Mitchell, a Pacific Palisades, California–based RRCA-certified coach and co-host of the Suite Run podcast, the best way to get in the right mindset is to sign up for a race that you’re truly excited about.
“I know that, for me, the thought of lining up for a race again seems a bit daunting. [I’m asking myself], ‘Will I remember what to do, how to execute? What if I fail, what if I go out too fast,’ etcetera,” she says. “I think the best plan is to go and have fun and while you can train hard if you want, don’t put pressure on yourself as you ease back into racing.”
One example of how to put this into action is by being mindful of your social media usage. In the past, did you post every aspect of your training on Instagram? If the answer is yes, and the idea of that brings upon the feelings of nervousness and social pressure, maybe take a step back and keep most details to yourself this time around, Mitchell says.
“This can help you enter back into racing with a new sense of freedom, and after two years, you can think of it as a celebration,” she says.
If the mental aspect of training is what you’re struggling with more than being physically disciplined, taking the pressure off and going into a first race with the goal to just have fun may be just the ticket, Dieujuste adds.
“Maybe that first race will be the one that will help you figure out exactly where you are and help to set tangible goals to get back to your goal fitness level,” she says. “In the races that follow, you can hone in on that and make a plan to get to the next phase.”
Consider a more laid-back race
If you’re not ready to go after your next goal marathon, a small fun run may be a better bet. Thanksgiving is around the corner, which means so are a slew of small, holiday races that often draw the whole family out. These races can be an easier way to get your focus back to running for the run of it, Mitchell says.
“Entering a race with friends or family, like a Turkey Trot or holiday race, can be the perfect way to dip your toe back in and not overthink the process,” she says.
Finally, don’t feel bad about sitting it out
Whether it’s just because you’re still not comfortable with the state of the country and the world as we’re still trying to beat COVID, or you’re simply just not feeling enthused about racing if you’re not back at your peak fitness level, that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to enjoy just running for yourself.
“Don’t look at your watch [and instead focus on enjoying] the sights and sounds of being around people and hearing the sound of runners pounding the pavement or trail,” Mitchell says. “For many runners, getting outside for their daily run is fulfilling enough.”
“As long as you’re patient, your fitness will come,” Dieujuste adds. “Even if you originally came from running marathons, remember that you had to start somewhere to get to that level. So don’t be afraid to walk and run now if you need to.”