The last few months have been about adapting, adjusting, unlearning and learning. Athletes, runners and fitness enthusiasts across the world too have had to set new goals in compliance with the new normal and work towards those goals as countries announced lockdown and sporting events got cancelled. In this series, Finisher Magazine brings you personal accounts of runners across the globe on how they are coping with life and fitness during pandemic. In this piece, London-based Poornima Nair shares her story.
Running has been an integral part of my life for the past eight years. What started as a simple intervention for my mental and physical well-being soon turned into a passionate pursuit. Running aimlessly around the block converted into races – 5K, 10K and then the perfectly planned and well-trained half marathons. Over the last few years, I’ve run multiple half marathons in and around Europe, achieving personal bests at Berlin and Copenhagen. Accomplishing a level of physical fitness is no doubt a crucial benefit of running for many, but for me, it means a lot more – principally, the positive impact it has on my mental health. Having come from a background of multiple traumas, this sport continues to be my perfect antidote to stress, anxiety and living life in London.
At the start of each year, I tend to set short and long-term goals in diverse areas of my life and indisputably running features in them. In January 2020, I set an intention of training hard this year to prepare for a marathon, a big jump for me from my preferred half marathon distance. Training runs were almost perfect till early March, and then something I hadn’t ever forecasted for, hit me. It was Tuesday – March 10. I had an early morning run and instead of experiencing endorphins, I was hit by extreme fatigue. Soon after, I displayed symptoms of fever, headache, exhaustion and shortness of breath – the classic symptoms that we had been asked to look out for in Covid-19. At this point London was not in lockdown yet, but cases in the city were on the rise. My first reaction to feeling sick was intense anger – I was fit, running every day and it didn’t make sense that I had contracted Covid-19. Where was all the immunity I had built? I was also angry that I couldn’t run till I recovered, the running streak I had built up was now gone, that feeling I’m sure a fellow runner would appreciate. The next few days I followed protocol – isolate, paracetamol, rest, and recovery and within 10 days I was feeling well and back to my usual self. My initial anger very soon turned into relief and gratitude with this realisation that it was probably my years of running and fitness that aided a quick recovery.
London and the rest of the UK were put into a complete lockdown shortly after my recovery. Given the sharp rise in cases, it was expected. We had the following rules – if you are not a keyworker, leave home only for essentials, or to help the vulnerable; and once a day for exercise. I can’t tell you the relief I felt when I heard that we were permitted to leave home for an hour a day for a workout. Many other countries around us, including Spain and Italy, did not allow outdoor exercise so this news came as an enormous relief. That being said, running in lockdown had its own challenges. The first one for me – social distancing, a concept I had never heard of, before. How do you run safely keeping a 2m distance from others? Honestly, the first few days were an absolute disaster. Since gyms and other indoor fitness centres had shut, it felt like the whole world was outside. The parks were flooded with people. I couldn’t walk, let alone run. I changed my strategy in the week that followed and I decided to head out really early in the mornings. It was early spring, and I started to leave home at 5:45am everyday to get my hour of running and that was simply the best intervention to avoid crowds and run freely. We are now over 100 days into lockdown here, with more ease in restrictions, but even to this day I’m out at 5:45am every morning for my exercise. As I was training hard prior to the coronavirus pandemic, an hour outside just didn’t feel enough. So I started adding resistance workouts on a fitness machine I have at home, called the Bowflex Max. Although we are now allowed indefinite outdoor exercise, I still keep up this combination of runs and indoor machine work to aid fitness and enhance endurance. While all races have been cancelled here in the UK for the foreseeable future, there is still hope that if I maintain fitness I could well get back to marathon training when things get better.
No doubt like many others around the world, one of the other challenges I face in this lockdown is a feeling of a complete lack of freedom. Home for me has taken on multiple identities; a home but also a school, a professional workspace and also a gym! I’ve been speaking to fellow runners here who agree, especially women and mothers, who have to home-school their kids in addition to work and other commitments. Perhaps collectively we feel a sense of deep sadness that our freedom that manifested through long-distance running has now been curbed till things ease up. I have to admit, I really miss my old normal of running, but then I’ve also had tremendous wins and for that I’m grateful.
Running continues to enhance my own mental health and well-being. As a trained mental health professional and researcher in positive psychology, my work and practice have grown exponentially over the last few months, with work getting intense. Getting out to run helps me clear my mind and sets me up to start my day afresh and with positive energy. Running and exercise continues to build my immunity, a critical factor now to stay protected against the coronavirus.
These are such unprecedented times for all of us – this pandemic has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, unprecedented unemployment and a global economic downturn. While we can’t control events itself, we can definitely control the way we respond to them and I believe physical activity can play a huge part here. Research shows that engaging in physical activity is linked to enhanced positive emotions. Positive emotions can help us open our minds, broaden our thinking and build social, intellectual, physical and psychological resources that in turn can build resilience – a trait that is absolutely essential in these times. Studies have also shown that physical activity can enhance positive body image and self-esteem and reduce anxiety and depression. Finally, if you can be safe, and the government guidelines in your country allow for it, get out and run. There is no better intervention for your mental and physical well-being.