WOMEN ATHLETES GET REAL ABOUT MENTAL WELL-BEING DURING COVID-19

Mental well-being can be a key benefit of an endurance sports lifestyle. At Poppy Sports we champion many different aspects about women and sport. First and foremost, there are the clear physical and mental benefits. We develop these concepts, coaching women to understand the power sport can have in other areas of their lives and how to maximize the benefits. With that in mind, endurance training/racing is a mindset we can draw upon in challenging times, a global pandemic included.

The New York Times spoke with Nahla Valji, a senior general advisor at the UN. She reported the COVID-19 virus has exposed a gender fault line and that women are being squeezed by the pandemic. This research stands testament to part of our mission. It’s important to acknowledge women – in both sport and life – follow a different path to the ‘start line’ than our male counterparts.

We wanted to understand and share the diverse stories of women athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic. We reached out to our fellow athletes to learn about their well-being and the role endurance sport training is playing.

MENTAL WELL-BEING: WE’RE ON UNIQUE, BUT SIMILAR JOURNEYS

Firstly, let’s acknowledge each of is navigating our own personal odyssey at the moment. We’re all experiencing the pandemic lockdown differently. We are mindful many are worse off than others. As the saying goes, we are all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. We want to take the time to acknowledge this; we don’t seek to belittle or ignore unique experiences.

Our goal is to highlight some select personal experiences of women athletes that may serve to help others. After all, there is solidarity to be found in the shared experiences of this journey.

As we spoke to more and more athletes common themes emerged. Surprisingly, there have been positives to the new world order. So it would be churlish not to acknowledge the good with the bad.

MENTAL WELLBEING: NEGATIVE IMPACTS

  • Routine: Falling off a routine was reported as an initial impact of the lockdown. However, most athletes also acknowledged the need for routine and were either setting up a new one or already had. It took time for women to acknowledge and absorb the new normal, before setting up ‘systems’ to help them cope.
  • Concentration: The inability to concentrate for long periods of time was another common report. This might not be the time to dive into reading Moby Dick, or The Complete Works of Shakespeare. But, it is appropriate to set micro-goals or time block the week to make the most of shorter bursts of concentration.
  • Anxiety and Overwhelm: Not surprising in the depths of the outbreak the anxiety grew. Worries over health, professional work, exhaustion, home-schooling were key driver of the sense of losing control. Calling upon the concept of training blocks and micro-improvements, some reported taking the time to start small efforts of well-being. Examples were consistency in training, writing down a schedule or small goals, using technology to keep in touch with those they cannot be with.
  • Social isolation: Loneliness was also reported as a negative element for some during the Stay at Home order. Athletes used to the camaraderie of group training and weekly rides suddenly found themselves solo. This has taken some navigating and adjusting to. We have helped athletes in our team to share their training goals in the Poppy Sports Team Group. We’ve created accountability partners and encouraged adoption of virtual racing or training in parallel. Feeling part of a community is a key part to removing the feeling of isolation.
  • Emotional Roller Coaster: Probably the most common theme was the inconsistency of emotions. Many reported one day feeling fine and the next being overwhelmed and daunted by the hour/day/week ahead. Many women have drawn upon the limits of endurance training using the mantras used in racing long distances. We’ve been there, somewhere at dark o’ clock at mile marker ‘far’ in a race. We’ve wondering how to take the next step, never mind where the finish line might be.
  • Loss of Fitness: Some athletes also reported a loss of fitness. Many athletes were in the ‘build’ level of training for the tri season ahead. A readjustment in schedules coupled with a ‘what am I training for now?’ feeling appears to have impacted some. However, many have also acknowledged picking themselves up, embracing a different set of goals and working towards those. Again, we’re hearing setting goals and having a focus are working.

MENTAL WELL-BEING: POSITIVE IMPACTS

  • Rest: The ability to allow the body to rest has been a default of being at home more. Sleep was the most reported gain from being at home.
  • Burden: Life in many aspects has taken on a different tempo. Many women athletes have noted they are no longer taking children to organized sports, activities, clubs. The speed of the day has taken on a much slower tempo, and many are enjoying that.
  • Time and Space to Think: Some athletes managed to score more time back into their day. Mostly, this came from working from home removing commuting time. Some have come to realize they are more productive working from a remote environment.
  • Reboot: The upside of no races on the calendar affords some more time to focus on self-reflection, career and family. It’s not just athletes who are assessing the current status quo, using the time to find ways to reinvent themselves.
  • Gain in Fitness: One key aspect of the stay at home order has been making time to maintain a consistent level of training. Swimming might be out, but athletes are still training. With consistency comes fitness and many have reported gains in fitness. Others talk about getting back to basics. Athletes have cited spending time on strength work and body maintenance. It appears those were the first elements to suffer during a busy work week!

SARAH TRUE TALKS MENTAL HEALTH AND SPORT

Triathlete Sarah True has been very open about her experience of depression. She recently shared her insights with USA Triathlon readers about how to balance sport when dealing with the mental impact of depression . True recommends during times of mental stress, it’s not the moment to go all out for PR. But, she does recommend staying active for the mental benefits of training and sport.

  • Back off the training: If you’re physically exhausted from overtraining, your capacity to absorb stressors is limited. Adjust your race and training schedule. 
  • But, staying active is important: Because of the hormonal and chemical response to enhance your mood. Find that balance. 

STAY ACTIVE, STAY ON COURSE, STAY SAFE

Acknowledging the global pandemic is what it is, we cannot ignore benefits have arisen from the new world order. As women athletes, we hope the positives will help us through this very unique period of time. If we are fortunate, we’ll emerge more rested with a sense of motivation. And finally, more aware of our own personal journeys and those of the people around us.

Let’s take the time to draw upon our knowledge as endurance athletes. It’s time to take this unique skill and experience and rise to the challenge of the new world ahead.