How Pandemic-Related Stress May Be Impacting Your Runs

Two months ago, Leigh Power was in the midst of training for her next race, the Vancouver Half Marathon on May 3. Just a few weeks later, her plans were thwarted when race organizers canceled the event—the weekend’s festivities also featured marathon and 8K races—due to the coronavirus pandemic. Around the same time, Power, 38, was furloughed from her job in the events industry, and suddenly, her daily routines were thrown to the wayside.

Without a race on the horizon, she re-evaluated her goals. Of course, competition was a major motivator, but her main intention for staying active is overall health. While Vancouver is under stay-home orders, she re-tooled her maintenance plan, focusing on virtual fitness classes and solo runs, but soon found the miles didn’t come as easily as they used to. “There’s good days and there’s bad days,” she says. “It does feel harder, a lot of the runs feel more challenging. It’s an overall sense of fatigue. I wonder why it feels so hard and why it hurts so much and why it doesn’t feel as good as I think it should.”

As cities around the world are continuing lockdowns and social distancing, solitary running has become an escape from the monotony of life under quarantine. Despite the cancelation or postponement of races, many of us are embracing the extra time ordinarily spent commuting or socializing to run and get creative with workouts, no doubt contributing to positive mental wellbeing during a fraught time. Still, the added stressors brought on by the pandemic—concern for the health of ourselves and loved ones, social isolation, economic instability, lack of childcare—may impede physical performance and contribute to a sense of lethargy during runs.

Mental fatigue, or exhaustion caused by a brain on overdrive, can have negative effects on our physical performance, research shows. A 2014 study found that prolonged mental stress increased the amount of perceived energy it took to work out, fatigue, and soreness for up to four days. Meaning: Not only will your run feel harder, but you’ll also feel slightly more taxed than usual afterward, too.

Another study, also from 2014, showed that runners who were mentally exhausted ran slower than if they were not. In a review of scientific research, the authors concluded that stress can have a negative effect on physical activity performance. The main consequence of mental stress on performance is the amount of perceived effort needed to complete the task, studies show.

During this current health crisis, our brains are experiencing both short-term and long-term stressors, says Bart Roelands, Ph.D., a sports science professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel who’s studied mental fatigue and exercise. The transition to a virtual lifestyle means near-constant exposure to screens and fewer breaks in the monotony—like a quick walk to grab coffee—which contributes to mental fatigue on a short-term, everyday basis. The loss of a loved one, a job, and increased social isolation adds to long-term stress. Taken together, the mental load can affect our motivation and endurance, making our runs feel harder.

“Just being locked up on its own is enough of a trigger to feel bad,” Roelands says. “At the same time, if you lose your job or … [are] not being able to visit your father who’s in a nursing home, that contributes to how you feel mentally and that is going to diminish your drive and motivation to exercise. If you have enough motivation left, you’re still going to go for that run, but it makes sense that it’s going to feel harder.”

posted Sunday May 17th
by Runner’s World