Stories from Running

My Running Rituals Have Changed in the Era of COVID-19, but the Miles Still Matter

Ali Finney

Ali FinneyMay 22, 2020

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Photo: Getty/Mark Edward Atkinson

My favorite day of the year goes something like this: I’m on a run in my narrow, brownstone-lined Brooklyn neighborhood. I’ll come to a cross street and glance left and then right to check for traffic, but while I’m doing this, I’ll be distracted by the tree branches, which overnight have seemingly become flooded with green buds. For the first time, in a long time, the world will feel alive and promising, and as the sun beats down and the wind picks up, all of winter’s sins are forgiven.

But this year has been different. This winter’s wrongdoings weren’t easily rectified in a single run, and, even if they were, I wasn’t going outside to participate in any sort of ceremonial slate cleaning. While many pros said that it was fine to go for runs and walks outdoors, I was overly cautious and incredibly anxious about social distancing. Early on, with so much unknown about the state of the COVID-19 virus, it seemed to me that, while living in the epicenter of the virus, it was best for my day-to-day unfold in my apartment (even if that meant stepping away from running, which is a big part of who I am). “Losing a part of one’s routine, specifically exercise or sport can be a significant impact in one’s emotional and mental state,” says Hillary Cauthen, CMPC and Association for Applied Sport Psychology executive board member. “Alongside losing a sense of identity and meaning we need to consider the physiological response that is lost due to the decrease in exercise. The act of running was providing a balance in endorphins, positive mood boosts, and decrease in anxiety.”

This was admittedly the hardest part for me to rectify. Fitness has always been a way that I keep my mental health in check. No, it should never stand in for the help of a solid mental health professional, but yes, it can give the brain a boost, which many (including myself) find helpful. Harvard researchers, for example, found that as little as 15 minutes of running or an hour of walking can reduce one’s risk of depression by 26 percent. Likewise Cleveland Clinic scientists found a cocktail of “feel-good” brain chemicals are released when cardio (like running) and strength training are paired together. To me, run time is the video buffering, the page loading; I need it to process stress, worries, and joy, so that when I show up, I’m not glitchy.

To me, run time is the video buffering, the page loading; I need it to process stress, worries, and joy, so that when I show up, I’m not glitchy.

And so, as the days sprinted into weeks and the weeks chugged along to months, I started feeling like I wasn’t myself. I spent pretty much the entirety of March avoiding exercise of any kind. With my body lethargic and craving movement, in April, I bought a foldable treadmill that doesn’t quite get up to the speed I’d prefer, but it’s something. At the end of each day, I’d collapse it and store under my couch in my tiny apartment. I took meetings on this treadmill. I knocked out four miles here. Six miles there. With The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel blaring to distract me from my reality, it was one foot in front of the other—on repeat.

While the motion was familiar, nothing about the reality of running on a treadmill felt natural or joy-provoking to me. “Running inside can be different than outside and more difficult due to the mental challenge and physiological change in our running when we run on a treadmill versus outside,” says Dr. Cauthen. “It may take more mental effort to focus on running on a treadmill as you cannot feel your progress since you aren’t moving along a path, and you may get caught up in watching the time or distance tracker.”

Often frustrated and in need of a distraction, I’d find small tasks to complete in between miles. Including but not limited to: Moving the fan closer to me. Turning up the volume on the TV. Retying my shoe laces nine times for no reason whatsoever. Opening the blinds. One day, after doing the latter, I hopped back on my tread to finish up a workout. After a few minutes of Midge’s comedy routine, I fell out of my TV trance, and I looked to my left. Like always, a surge of green was forming in the tree tops just across the street, and yet another spring was in motion. Less familiar, less certain, but still totally recognizable.

“In sport, or in life, we find patterns of behaviors and develop routines that accomplish task linked to our emotions,” says Dr. Cauthen. “Utilizing sport as a routine in one’s day will provide a sense of focus, relaxation, positive mood boost to help facilitate growth and impact in our work, academics, and relationships.” As universes and lively cities have shrunk to one-bedroom apartments, our existences have shape-shifted, as have our fitness routines, family life, fill-in-the-blank-here. Yes, things right now feel barren and confusing and bleak, but there soon will come a time that, tired of the noise, sick of the isolation, we will look up and to the left and see green treetops.

As science has firmed up about the general safety of outdoor exercise, a few days ago, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I went on a sunny Saturday morning run. I moved into the deserted street and began to pick up my pace on an uphill climb. The trees, already dripping with leaves hung over the street I was running through, like one of those old-school hand tunnels that the soccer moms used to make after a game was finished. I closed my eyes and, put one foot in front of the other and felt the sun’s imprint between the trees shine onto my skin. For the first time in a long time, there was light.

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