2 Ways to Embrace Constraint in Running During COVID-19

Runners are used to being constrained only by their own physical limitations, how long we can stay on their feet, how much ground we can cover, and how quickly our legs turn over, just as writers are constrained only by their own limitations with language. We runners are used to being able to head out the door or hit the trailhead and explore wherever our feet take us. And we writers can put anything on a page if we can just get started, getting out that metaphorical door.

Running in the time of COVID-19 has changed all of that for us. Our races are canceled, rescheduled, or gone virtual. Our group runs are canceled and most of us have to social distance, running solo. Our training plans are not as pressing. Our motivations and priorities have changed. Without the mental benefit of constraint impressed by training schedule and races, many of us, myself included, feel at a loss. 

Constraint in Writing

We writers are very familiar with constraints like deadlines and style guides as well as roadblocks, often hitting “the wall” with writer’s block of some sort, not knowing where to start, writing ourselves into a corner. 

The way we often deal with these roadblocks is by putting some kind of constraint on ourselves. The following are all very common exercises. 

  • Write a story using six words or less.
  • Write an imitation of another piece.
  • Write in response to a piece of music or art.
  • Write in a new poetic form or a scene in another genre.
  • Write for a specified amount of time.
  • Write on a specific page size.
  • Write using a list of words chosen at random.

In fact, we gravitate to rules as seen through books like In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steven Kowit, now in its second edition. Writing exercise books and websites in general are quite popular. Giving ourselves these rules sets up a place to begin, a place to calm the chaos of ideas or jumpstart a stagnant mind. 

Giving ourselves these rules also gives us writers an end or a goal, something that us runners may be lacking at the moment.

Constraint in Running

When COVID-19 hit, I was training for a trail marathon. I felt great about my running routine: weekday runs 3 days a week with friends while my daughter was in preschool, Saturday afternoon run solo after riding horses, and Sunday long runs with one of the run groups I belong to. I went to a fabulous yoga class once a week taught by a Trail Sister and friend and lifted weights and practiced yoga 2-3 times a week at home. I was 12 weeks into an 18 week training cycle, and I felt strong. Then, the world changed with the spread of this virus.

My marathon was canceled but offered a virtual option or deferment to 2021. My husband and 5 year old are now at home all day, and my usual schedule is out of whack like so many other people. Even though I work mainly from home anyway, it’s gotten chaotic. With more time home in the day, somehow I seem to have less time available.

I hung in there, sticking to my training schedule initially but avoiding crowds and using social distancing. But I quickly realized I didn’t feel like running a virtual marathon by myself, and quite frankly, I didn’t like being gone from the house for very long for several reasons. I deferred and I decided to take the path of constraint with running, which has ended up making all the difference for me.

1. Explore New Places

Even in a country you know by heart

it’s hard to go the same way twice.

The life of the going changes.

Wendell Berry, “Traveling at Home,” Collected Poems: 1957-1082

One of my first decisions early on was not to drive anywhere to run. For me, that made sense and was practical. By limiting myself to where I could travel out to and back in an hour from my front door, I ended up discovering some new favorite places around my neighborhood while social distancing and avoid crowds. 

You can take the high tech or low tech approach to this:

  • High tech—Look for Strava segments in your area using the Explorer option or segments in Garmin Connectthrough the Training tab to see where other people have run. You can also Map My Run to map out a route with handy options like creating out-and-back and loop routes. 
  • Low tech—Literally follow your feet. Run down the street that you always wondered about, turn left where you always turn right, enter the tiny park you always drive by. Note: Cemeteries are also fantastic to explore as so many are hidden away in urban areas, but check the rules of the individual cemetery to make sure running is allowed before you use it as a route.

So far, I’ve found a beautiful park with a one mile dirt loop and two decent hills tucked away with a creek crossing, two historical cemeteries (posts forthcoming!) , and tree carvings in front yards, just taking the time to look. All of these places are one mile or less from my house.

Trail at George Rogers Clark
Carved tree trunk in Parkway Village

Think of it as being a tourist in your own neighborhood! You can even turn it into a scavenger hunt of sorts with a little planning. 

2. Explore New Distances/Metrics

You may have more time to run or less time right now, you may feel like you’ve gotten in a rut, or you may have no desire to run longer training runs with races canceled or do longer virtual runs. But guess what? That’s perfectly okay

Most likely, you were on a training plan that had defined rules for you, like I was. Now you can change those if you want and set your own rules. Now is the time to play around with your training by setting yourself distance or time goals, running your best time at a shorter distance or measuring your runs by time only

Note: Make sure you keep any changes in training within reason, avoiding ramping up your mileage or intensity just because you have time. Resist FOMO and high mileage challenges if you don’t have the base already. No one wants to end up on the injured list.

Other than the practical challenges some runners and families face finding the literal time to get out the door on your own, the two common complaints seem to fall into two following categories:

  • Lack of Motivation—You’ve been training for a marathon or an ultra or even a half marathon, but now you don’t have the motivation to get those long runs in. 
    • Solution–Focus on setting a personal best at a shorter distance for now. The gains will stay with you as you work back into your next training cycle.
    • Solution–Focus on another aspect of running, like climbing/vert, at a shorter distance. Again, the gains will stay with you.
  • Feeling Burnt Out—You’ve been training with tempo runs and speed workouts, always focusing on hitting a specific pace each run with a strict goal, and now you either don’t know what to do or just don’t want to do workouts. 
    • Solution–Set a specific time goal for each run, like running for 30 minutes or 45 minutes. Switch your watch face to the time of day and just go. The gains from easy running will pay off in running economy among other things.  

I’ve been doing a combination of both of these things. Personally, I have more time to run and have no desire to do any runs over 25K right now but want to be ready for the next training cycle, whenever that happens. I’m keeping my long runs around/under 25K and running for around 60-90 minutes the other four days of the week. It’s what works for me to keep my base up and my mental well-being in check. I’m actually running faster than ever and feel good about my relationship with running.


If you’re trying to stay motivated, try to give yourself some new rules and aim to enjoy your time. Take pictures, stop to read historical signs, or just tune in to the sounds around you. And if you’re absolutely not motivated, that’s okay too. Running isn’t going anywhere and will be waiting for you when you’re ready. How has COVID-19 changed your relationship with running?   

Published by Sarah White-Thielmeier

Writer and college writing teacher who runs, a lot, offering writing services via blogging, copywriting, and content strategy.

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