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Sarah Sawyer - Training and Staying Motivated in COVID-times

Sarah Sawyer, a running Coach and Pilates Teacher based in Brighton. She runs everything from 5ks to 100+ mile ultra marathons and pretty much everything in-between. She was 4th female at Spartathlon in 2019, has run 129.6 miles in 24 hours, and has finished on the podium in a diverse range of races such as Berlin 100, NDW50, Atacama Crossing and many more. Being a local, Sarah is an avid lover of the South Downs, running many of her training miles there throughout the year.

Training and Staying Motivated in COVID-times

Like most runners, COVID disrupted most of my running plans for 2020. A year that was meant to include travel to South Africa for Comrades, Chamonix for UTMB crewing and supporting, and Arizona for Desert Solstice, ended up being more about taking any race opportunities which came my way. However, when I look back on 2020, despite the fact I didn’t race from February until August, I have never enjoyed my running as much as I have this year. With the absence of races, and therefore no need to taper and recover, it has meant the best block of uninterrupted training I, and a lot of other runners, have ever had.

Runners tended to fall into two camps this year, those who struggled to remain motivated with their training with no races on the horizon or with uncertainty hanging over their remaining races. And those who found that nothing really changed in their motivation, and it was business as usual as far as their training went. The latter group have tended to deal with the challenges that 2020 brought to their running better than the first group, who struggled with dips in motivation and losing their running mojo.

Psychologists have identified two groups of people; those who are extrinsically motivated and those who are intrinsically motivated. And these personality types manifest into two different types of runners - extrinsically motivated runners who need a ‘reward’ (which might be a race, a medal or the social aspect of running with friends), and intrinsically motivated runners for whom the enjoyment of the activity of running itself is all the motivation they need to lace-up their trainers.

Whilst both forms of motivation are useful and necessary to achieve optimal running performance, if you know you are more extrinsically motivated, it may be time to explore your intrinsic motivation and the reasons why you run. When I’m coaching runners, I try and instil into them that first and foremost they should enjoy their running and love the process of training, and then think of the end goal of the race as the icing on the cake. This has never been so true as in this year when many runners spent months without any races in their calendar.

As we approach the end of 2020, most runners are coming to the end of a year of disrupted races, so now is the perfect time to start planning races for 2021. The last few months of 2020 have demonstrated that, whilst we may be a way off the return of big mass participation road races, smaller trail and road races can be executed safely and with COVID-protocols in place.

If you’re targeting a 2021 ultra, such as the South Downs 100k, then you’ll want to spend 3-6 months (depending on your running background and ultra running experience) training for it, so now is the ideal time to build up a good running base. Base training doesn’t just mean lots of easy miles; whilst they are a key component of this phase, you can also bring in fartlek (unstructured bursts of faster running to build leg speed) and hillier runs (which will build leg strength).

The single most important thing any runner can do to improve their running is train consistently. The thing that impresses me most about any good runners I follow on Strava is not any specific training session, but it’s the consistency they bring to their training, week in and week out, 12 months a year, year after year. If your race feels like a lifetime away, try and remember it’s all the training that you’re putting in now which is going to make a difference on race day.

As we approach a long, dark and uncertain winter, here are some ways to keep you motivated and make sure you start 2021 with a solid bank of consistent training behind you:

  1. Mix it up – If your next goal race isn’t for several months, use this opportunity to try out different things in your training. When all my immediate ultras were cancelled earlier this year, I focused on getting faster – this meant shorter interval sessions than I’d do if I was in ultra training and putting myself through the pain of 1 mile time trials! The reward, however, was a big 1:28 half marathon PB in my first race back.
  2. Run somewhere new – Some runners love running the same routes every day (anyone who follows me on Strava knows I’m a complete creature of habit when it comes to my run routes!), however if you get bored of the same routes, use this opportunity to go and run somewhere different. Just don’t follow me on Strava if you’re wanting run route inspiration!
  3. Be flexible and adaptable – One of the skills good ultra runners possess is the ability to be flexible and adaptable when they race and are faced with different challenges. Use this skill in your day to day approach to training and racing. I certainly didn’t envisage that my first race back would be 13 laps of Lee Valley Velopark, but instead of thinking what Coronavirus has stopped you from doing, think of the opportunities it has given you - you might enjoy them a lot more than you thought you would.
  4. Remember your ‘why’ – When you’re getting up early to train in the cold and dark you might question why you’re doing this, but don’t lose sight of the reasons you signed up for a race; whether it’s to aim for a PB, to run your longest ever distance or to raise money for charity. Also work on those intrinsic reasons I mentioned - running should always be a joy and in a world where umpteen people are unable to run through illness, injury or life chances, then we should celebrate every run we do!

To find out more about Sarah visit pilatesandrunningwithsarah.com or follow her on Instagram SazzleRuns.