Peter Chng

Running during shelter in place

I have been running seriously now for about 10 years, and last year ran the Bakersfield Marathon where I was able to run a Boston Qualifer (BQ) time for the first time in a few years. (Whether the BQ time is good enough to get into Boston remains to be seen.)

Thus it’s safe to say that running is a big part of my life. With shelter-in-place (SIP), physical distancing, and work-from-home (WFH) causing massive changes in our lifestyles, I’m lucky that running is one of the few things that was (mostly) not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been about 10 weeks since I started physical distancing due to the pandemic, and wanted to reflect on how running has helped me preserve a sense of normalcy during these extraordinary times.

The past 10 weeks

I’ve been WFH since March 9th, so we’ll count the 10 weeks starting on Sunday, March 8th until Saturday, May 16th, inclusive. My running stats over that time period are summarized as follows:

  • Number of runs: 48
  • Total Distance run: 667.96 km
  • Total time spent running: 55h 28m 05s

This works to an average of ~67 km per week and about 5.5 hrs spent running per week.

This is considerably more than in recent years, where I averaged between 50-55 km/week over the past three years. Most of that increase is intentional, to make up for the lack of walking that would happen naturally while being at the office.

However, this is still considerably lower than my running distances several years ago. For example, in 2011 and 2012 I averaged 75 km and 84 km per week, respectively. This was probably too much, as during the subsequent four years I averaged around 67 km/week - right where I’ve been for the past 10 weeks. This tells me that a sustainable average weekly distance for me might be around that 60-70 km/week mark, at least given my current age/condition.

Note that while my average between 2013-2016 was around 67 km/week, the peaks were far higher when training for a marathon back then. During 12 weeks of training, I probably averaged > 80 km/week with the peak being near 100 km. These were followed by far easier weeks post-race, and I usually did only two marathons per year. Having this wide variance and “peaking” for a race seemed to work well for me.

Running goals in the current environment

Road races have, like most other large events, been universally canceled or postponed. (One of the last big marathons to be run was the LA Marathon on March 8th.)

This takes out a huge component of the motivation behind training, as there is not a goal race in sight anymore. Thus, to keep training, you need to find intrinsic motivation. Generally for running, this hasn’t been an issue for me (I would continue to run even if there were never any more races), but it’s still helpful to list out concrete goals for those days where you don’t feel like going outside.

My goals were roughly:

  1. Stay safe.
  2. Maintain fitness to be in a good position to resume training when road races resume.
  3. Run to maintain a sense of normalcy, to help with mental and emotional health during these tough times.

It was relatively easy to stay safe while running in my area. I did have to stop running along some of my usual routes because the paths/trails were getting too busy on the weekends, but there were plenty of alternatives.

The population density where I live is low (one aspect of the suburbs turned into an advantage during a pandemic), and there are a ton of office parks nearby where the roads are now deserted because almost everyone is WFH. This means I can run through these areas and encounter very few people, even during the weekends. Furthermore, the roads there are mostly free of traffic so there’s plenty of room to run. Running early in the morning further decreases the likelihood of seeing anyone else.

I had planned to run Big Sur this past April, but it has since been postponed to November, and to be honest, I’m not even sure it will be able to go ahead then. However, I do believe road racing will eventually return, though how the events are run (no pun intended) may be quite different from what we’re used to. Until then, continuing to run to maintain a base level of fitness will help me to resume training when road races eventually get back on the schedule.

Lastly, maintaining the same running schedule I had before things got tough was a good way to hold on to a sense of normalcy in my life.

My running schedule

With these goals in mind, I’ve been mostly following a schedule where I do two hard(er) weeks followed by one easy week. This roughly translates into two weeks at 70-75 km and one week at ~50 km. Here’s a typical hard and easy week:

Sun Mon Tues Wed Thu Fri Sat Total
Hard 22-26 km Rest 10 km 15-17 km 10 km 12-15 km Rest <= 75 km
Easy 18 km Rest 8 km 10-12 km 8 km 10-12 km Rest ~50 km

The purpose of having hard weeks followed by an easy week are to help reduce training monotony: Instead of having every week be the same, I have the harder weeks with more training effect, and always have an easy/rest week to look forward to in the not-to-distant future. The easy week, in addition to helping with recovery, gives me a nice mental break. In some sense, the week-to-week variation is the same as the day-to-day variation, helping to ensure each run is different but over a longer time period.

A few notes on each day’s run:

  • Sunday: This is a long run, done at a relatively easy pace. This pace would be at least 30-45 seconds/km slower than my marathon pace (MP), which is the pace I ran the Bakersfield Marathon at last year.
  • Tuesday/Thursday: These are recovery runs: The shortest runs, done at the slowest pace. Basically whatever feels easy. This usually ends up being at least 1m 30s/km slower than MP.
  • Wednesday: This is the second “hard” effort of the week, the first being the Sunday long run. It’s put right in the middle of the week to maximize the recovery time between the two hard workouts. Of the total distance, I’ll run 8-10 km at MP or slightly faster. During easy weeks, I might not do any at MP. If training for an actual race, I would run these KMs faster than MP, and also alternate this workout with intervals on some weeks.
  • Friday: This is generally done at an easy pace, similar to the Sunday long run.

(Note that almost all runs are below MP; even if I was training for a marathon, the same would be true. Only a few key workouts need to be run at race pace or faster when training for a race.)

Nothing in the schedule is set in stone. (Nothing in a training plan should ever be set in stone!) If I head out for a run, especially a tough one, and I’m just not feeling it after 2-3 km, I’ll either turn it into an easy run or just head home. A few days, I just wasn’t feeling that great, and just took the day off from the planned run. Since I’m not training for a specific race, it’s much easier to do this.

I have to keep reminding myself that the goal is not to train for a race but just to maintain fitness. Hence, injury prevention takes a higher precedence and that’s why I’ve been pretty conservative in my runs: No really long runs, and no interval workouts, as I believe these have limited use if you’re not training for a race, but do increase your injury risk.

I may eventually incorporate an occasional time trial run as a substitute for a race, just to gauge my fitness and to provide a challenge, but these would be limited to 5 - 10 km to prevent over-extending myself unnecessarily.

Looking forward

As I mentioned before, I don’t think road races will be coming back anytime soon, especially the big races. Until something fundamentally changes, cramming together thousands of people in the starting corrals of a race just doesn’t seem sensible nor something most people would want to do. Besides the actual race itself, other aspects of big events (the expo, airline travel to the destination, large numbers of people from around the world congregating together and then going back home) just don’t seem conducive to the realities in this post-COVID world.

With all the loss that many are suffering during this pandemic, both from economic hardships and dearly departed loved ones, the loss of road races seems like a small concern (and it is), but it still contributes to the overall loss in normalcy. For me, being able to continue running is one way of maintaining that sense of normalcy.