How Runners Stay Fit When They Can’t Race
Ben Rosario, coach of the Northern Arizona Elite, has some advice for runners in limbo
Ask any dedicated runner how they stay motivated to voluntarily subject themselves to varying levels of discomfort, and they’ll likely tell you that it helps to have a race on the calendar. Those torturous mile repeats and 5 A.M. long runs are more bearable when there’s a target somewhere in the not too distant future.
Now, however, in the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves in the unprecedented situation of not knowing when racing will resume again. It could be a matter of months. It could take more than a year. In a sport where success depends on peaking at the right moment, navigating such extended periods of downtime can pose a dilemma: you don’t want to do too much too soon, since race-day fitness can’t be sustained indefinitely. Then again, if you don’t attempt any harder-effort running for months on end, you might find yourself in too deep of a fitness hole when it comes time to get back at it.
“It’s not that you shouldn’t do any workouts, it’s just that the workouts need to be the type of thing that you could do all year long and not get particularly tired or peak—these are efforts that you can sustain,” says Ben Rosario, who coaches the Northern Arizona Elite running team in Flagstaff. Aliphine Tuliamuk, one of Rosario’s star athletes, won the women’s marathon race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in late February. Less than a month later, she learned (along with the rest of the world) that the Games would be postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Tuliamuk, like thousands of other runners of every ability level, training for the time being is about staying in fitness cruise control.
Fortunately, one of the most effective ways to do this is ridiculously simple: “You really just want to be doing scaled-down versions of the workouts that you know are your toughest workouts,” Rosario says.
“For example, if a four-mile tempo run at a six-minute pace is a staple of your training, then you’ve got a couple of options: you could do a shorter version of that at the same pace, or you could do a four-mile tempo but at a 6:15 pace,” Rosario says. “The idea is to stay in your normal rhythm, while asking yourself if you could do these workouts for four or five months and not really get terribly worn down. If the answer is yes, then you’re doing it right.”
Ben Rosario’s Maintenance Workout for Runners
“Here’s a session that incorporates a number of training zones into one workout, but in a way that is very doable,” Rosario says. “Overall, you’ll get 4.5 miles of hard work. So it’s not easy, but it’s not terribly hard either. As your fitness progresses and you get closer to racing season, you can make this session harder by either adding volume to it or by making the paces faster.”
- One to two miles of easy running to warm up
- A one-mile tempo at your current half-marathon race pace
- Five minutes jogging rest
- 4 x 800 meters at your current 15K race pace (think: slower than a 10K but faster than a half-marathon pace), with two minutes of rest between reps
- 4 x 400 meters at your current 10K race pace, with a one-minute rest between reps
- 4 x 200 meters run slightly slower than your current mile race pace, with 45 seconds between reps
Overcoming the Mental Struggle
Of course, the physical side of managing an extended period of uncertainty is only half the battle. Mentally, runners should motivate themselves with prospective races, Rosario says—even when those races might not ultimately end up happening.
“My philosophy is to allow myself to get excited about the fall racing season,” Rosario says. “If this thing goes on longer than we want it to, or longer than expected, and those races end up getting pushed back as well—at least I got what I needed out of those races in terms of excitement level now. Because I’d rather be disappointed later than lethargic now. So picture fall races happening, and let yourself get excited about those races, let that excitement help get you out the door and accomplish your workouts. We’ll deal with the fall when it gets here.”