The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to pandemic times of COVID19

This is a loose sequel of my original post on Strava from March 15, 2020.

Disclaimer: Initially, I wanted to write up some general recommendations on training in the pandemic period based on research papers and other trustworthy sources. While I was writing it, it turned into a natural flow of my thoughts, thus it only represents my subjective perspective and thoughts for my future self…

A week ago, while we all expected the government to announce a universal curfew throughout the Czech Republic, I was considering whether to go for my third training session during Sunday, March 15.

My wife (a doctor at University Hospital Brno, one of the COVID-specialized hospitals in the Czech Republic) was just preparing for her night service (=30 hours on foot, saving lives = these doctors are the true heroes of our time) and she urged me not to go. Rather, she suggested reading about the impact of intense training on the immune and defense system (especially in the times of pandemic such as current COVID-19 situation).

And for once, I listened to her. Instead of putting on the headlamp, I plunged into studying few articles and papers on this topic and it kinda opened my eyes. I initially did not find any current sources, hands-on athletes’ experience/blog posts or statuses on this topic and thus, it motivated me to write-up this piece. So how should outdoor athletes cope with the quarantine?

Note for my future self: I do realize that “the problem” of cancelled races or limited ability to train outside is trifling and petty. Health comes first, and as I mentioned I have the boundless respect for doctors and everyone out there helping others, that’s what matters.

What a playground in the times of quarantine. March 16, social distancing at its best!

At the beginning of the quarantine

I am outdoor sports enthusiast. I prefer trails to road, mountain bikes to roadies (this has been slowly changing lately though), and mountains and nature to cities. I also use endurance training to shake off certain level of stress imposed by my work as a VP in IT company Kentico Kontent. However, at the end of a day, I am just a guy who simply loves being outdoors though.

Thus, the idea of universal curfew or quarantine, is quite scary and unimaginable for me. On the other hand, if it takes what it takes to get rid of the coronavirus and get back to normal state, I’d conform, of course. Health always comes first.

Even though, I prefer nature to roads, I’ve been “speed-training” for half-marathon (Czech Champ on April 11) in last couple of weeks. The thing is that trail and mountain races got incredibly fast in last years, and it got me thinking which ultimately resulted in a strong desire to go on the road and test myself.

The beauty of road running lies in a pretty straightforward comparison of the quality of the times achieved. It’s also much easier to set up goals and that’s what I like. I am not the type of person who gets satisfied or pleased with himself very often (I have internal rule 3 times a year, which my wife truly hates – she tends to be excited about every single time I cross the finishline and does not get when I am not satisfied :)).

As far as my performance/physical fitness goes, I am not slow but I am no speedster either. This spring, I was aiming for 34:20 on 10k and anything between 1:15-1:18 on half marathon. Not great, not terrible. I’d consider anything under 1:16:30 a success, anything over 1:18 as fail. As plain as day.

The training was going great in January 2020, we had many fun sessions with my younger brother (there you have your speedster! One is hitting 12 times 400m at 69″ and still feels like loser when his younger brother keeps hitting 65″ again and again) … And then baam – COVID19 comes to the game.

Trying to keep up with 22y old :)

To train or not to train?

It’s now evident that the spring season is over and my motivation for going on the road is gone. That being said, nothing much changes to my motivation for training – at the end of a day, my biggest motivation is a pure love for moving fast in nature.

So what did I learn with regards to the impact of training on the immune system? Long story short… I am quite confident that it’s still a good practice to train every day to stay healthy, especially if you are used to such regular physical activity.

On the other hand, we should keep in mind not to do any (or not too many:)) hard sessions over your anaerophic threshold. You should absolutely not perform any trainings that are over your limits or activities that your body is not physically used to. The reason is simple. Harder the session is, the greater the impact on our immune system is which implicates significantly increased risk of infection.

The so-called J-Curve provides a simple explanation (where URTI stands for “Upper respiratory tract infections“):

The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system (Niemann, Wenz, Journal of Sports and Health Science)

Some other conclusions agreed across multiple resources:

  • Regular, habitual exercise promotes protection against infections and lowers your risk of infection.
  • Illness risk (specifically colds and respiratory illnesses) is increased in athletes during periods of intensified training and competition.
  • Leading physically active lifestyle is benefical to immune function, that’s a universal truth agreed (almost) by everyone :)

An example on optimizing my training cycle

Now, let’s take a look on how I optimized my own training schedule considering the current pandemic situation in Czech Republic. The goal is to keep my fitness, while not putting too much strain on my body’s immune system by doing any hard sessions.

A typical training week before pandemic vs training in COVID19 times

  • Monday: hilly 15k on trails @4:40/km
  • Tuesday: Very easy (rege), 10k @4:50/km
  • Wednesday: 12x400m workout at 1:09-1:12 (2:50-2:58/km), 15k in total
  • Thursday: free
  • Friday: 9k fartlek, 2x(10×15″), avg 4:30 (15secs full gas)
  • Saturday: 9.8k race @3:31/km (training tempo race, but still aiming on faster), 17k total incl WU/CD
  • Sunday: hilly 16k on trails @4:45/km

As mentioned, I am no speedster and prefer trails and uphills to road and track. Considering the halfmara goal, I was regularly doing at least 2-3 quality/high-intensity sessions per week.

Taking my woman-hero for a short roadie to shake off the doctor’s stress during the pandemic

A COVID19-optimized training week :)

  • Monday: hilly 26k on trails at very easy pace 5:30/km (incl scrambling on rocks, and pauses for enjoying the nature :)
  • Tuesday: free
  • Wednesday: hilly 12k @5:00, easy
  • Thursday: 1) 25k/700m+ mountain bike on trails, 2) 25k easy road bike session with my wife
  • Friday: 1) 55k road bike session, low intensity, but great pleasure, 2) easy 25k mountain bike with my wife on trails.
  • Saturday: 15k/500m+ hilly 75min @5:00
  • Sunday: 12.5k/500m+ hilly 65min @5:20

Overall, ironically enough, I spent more time outdoors – but the core measure lies in the fact, that I completely skipped any high-intensity workouts due to the current situation. The only harder training was mountain bike fartlek on Thursday morning, and even that was not high intensity.

This way, you can enjoy even more time outdoors, while doing it responsibly w/o putting too much strain on your immune system and at least feeling a little bit responsible :)

Overall, if you are used to spending a lot of time outdoors, you will absolutely do a better decision if you keep moving, rather than isolating yourself at home without any physical activity.

Long tempo runs with my bro before COVID19 :)

Resources

I am no expert and my wife would laugh at me if I tried to continue writing this article on a serious level, so rather I am including few interesting resources:

Book recommnedations for outdoor athletes trapped at home

If you keep reading until now, you do deserve some reward. Here is the list of my book recommendations that any endurance athlete appreciaties for sure:

Take care, keep moving and let me know if you have any book/movies tips!

Bonus: Short outdoor sports movies for longer quarantine eves:

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