For marathoners who run 200 kilometres a week, lockdown has brought them to a dead stop

Nihal Koshie

When in the peak period of their training cycles, marathon runners typically clock 180 to 200 kilometres a week (File Photo)

From running 180 to 200 kilometres a week to near zilch. A set of athletes has literally been stopped in their tracks by lockdowns imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. A full marathon covers almost 42.2 kilometres and for those putting their bodies on the line, standing still is not an option.

Marathoners' workouts comprise developing endurance, hill training, tempo running — every single session planned to begin four to five months before a race. But marathons around the world have been cancelled. For an athlete whose weekly schedule involves clocking kilometres at a stretch for five days a week, not being allowed outdoors can result in the wheels falling off faster than for most others.

Paris, Tokyo, Vienna, Rotterdam, Manchester, Barcelona, Boston and London are cities that have postponed marathons, shredding carefully-chalked-out training plans.

Eliud Kipchoge, often called the greatest marathon runner, shared his 'training-from-home diary' with the BBC recently. He talks about the loneliness of not being able to run with his team because of social distancing. “This is now the third day since we broke up from the camp due to coronavirus. It's really hard to train because I value teamwork. It's mutual interest because it helps me so much,” Kipchoge says.

The Kenyan was training to run the London Marathon but is now confined to his home. He is based in Eldoret since his training camp at Kaptagat was shut because of the pandemic giving him the option of running solo. Kipchoge is one of the luckier ones.

India's marathon runners, confined to their rooms at training centres or at home, are learning to innovate. Sudha Singh, a qualifier for last year's World Championships, says she looks at the running track longingly from her hostel room window at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala during the ongoing lockdown.

“The track is so close yet so far,” she says. “You feel like going out and running but of course I am being responsible and following all precautions,” Sudha says.

Improvisation has kept her restlessness in check. She uses the staircase inside the hostel building to run up and down as a form of cardio exercise. “Only when nobody is around do I use the steps. One needs to at least do some basic exercises. In my room, I do basic strength training using an exercise band,” she says.

A marathoner has multiple issues to worry about as cutting down on 'mileage' can have repercussions — the endurance level begins to dip and weight gain is a concern. “I have lost 30 per cent of my endurance in 10 days,” Nitendra Singh Rawat says from Baijnath, a village located in the Garur Valley of Uttarakhand.

READ | What Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge has achieved - Not an official record, but a triumph of human endurance

Rawat, a 2016 South Asian Games gold medallist, goes for short runs in this picturesque locale but he too needs to be careful. “I do a quick run into the jungle where there is a path. There is nobody in these parts so there is no fear of being infected by coronavirus but there are wild animals. Running is so important and if one is not able to, it gets really tough and depressing. I understand the important of the lockdown,” Rawat adds.

The experienced marathoner worries about putting on weight because he is not burning enough calories. High-carb drinks and water keep a marathoner going during training days and Rawat says when one stops running suddenly, there can be a build-up of fat.

“I have put on over two kilograms. I am cutting down on my calorie intake, especially carbohydrates. I have just one scoop of rice instead of two, one roti and sabzi. At the moment, I can't follow the specialised diet which I would have if I was training properly. I don't lose weight as fast as I put on so it is a challenge. My muscles are losing strength,” Rawat says.

The current predicament the town of Baijnath faces in terms of supplies balances it out. “I am forced to cut down because the truck that delivers essentials to this area comes from 140 kilometres away. So we have to stock up and go easy,” Rawat adds.

The 33-year-old knows the road ahead will be tough for endurance athletes with uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown, not just in India but in marathon venues around the world. “Everything has gone for a toss. Mentally also, it is very difficult because the training schedule is disrupted. And how do you plan training because you don't know when the next marathon will be held,” Rawat says.

5000 calories to 3000 per day

National long-distance coach Surinder Singh gives pep talks to trainees over the phone to keep their spirits high. He is also monitoring their diet. “For long-distance runners being in a room and not able to run makes a huge difference. They can burn off half a kilo increase in weight fast once they return to full training. If it’s more than that, it will take longer. I am trying to ensure that their diet is reduced. Say from 5000 calories a day to 3000 calories a day,” Surinder says.

The advantage of being an elite athlete, according to Surinder, is that they can regain endurance levels faster than others.

Thonakal Gopi, a former Asian marathon title-holder, is at the Sports Authority of India's centre at Kangeri, Bangalore. He isn't too stressed about this 'off period' because he is recovering from a niggle in his knee. “This is like a recovery period for me. So in a way, I have not lost much in terms of training because of the lockdown as I was not 100 per cent fit yet. But I should be fine in a few days,” Gopi says.

If he was in his peak training schedule, he would have done at least 180 to 190 kilometres a week. Gopi is lucky because he does not put on weight. “I am not somebody who eats a lot so it is easy for me to control my diet. My weight has more or less been constant over the years. We don't have access to the gymnasium. Everyone is training individually in their rooms. When we train for the marathons we do so in groups, but we don’t know when that would be possible,” Gopi says.

Around the world, the uncertainty over events makes planning tougher for athletes. Hugh Jones, a winner of the London, Stockholm and Oslo marathons in the 1980s, and a race director at events around the world, is sensitive to their predicament.

“For most elite athletes, denied any possibility of competing for the next few months, the objective should be to set training at a lower level which does no more than maintain a good level of aerobic fitness. When races start to be staged again — not just planned and scheduled— then there will be an intervening time in which runners must bring their training to a peak,” Jones said in an email.

“At the moment, races are being postponed from scheduled May dates but, as the virus continues to spread, it is likely that June, July and August dates will also be postponed or cancelled. No one can tell for sure when the race programme will resume so athletes are faced with targets that move in an unpredictable way.”