Across cities, with the gradual easing of lockdown norms, runners and cyclists have been stepping out for their daily dose of physical activity. That has brought happiness. However with the number of COVID-19 cases rising, there is trepidation in being out; not to mention – amid relaxation of lockdown rules overall, there has been stringent local lockdown happening. Select states, metros and townships have relapsed to tight lockdown of short duration. Given the lack of clarity, amateur athletes are cautiously optimistic about what lay ahead.
Just four days before India’s nationwide lockdown commenced in March, Faridabad-based Seema Yadav decided to head to Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. She wanted to spend a couple of days with her father, who was there on work. Seema took her son along on the journey.
Although worries over the virus had been brewing, the descent to lockdown was sudden. Soon after Seema landed in Bhiwadi, the one-day nationwide curfew was announced followed in no time by the 21-day lockdown. With the lockdown only getting extended thereafter, Seema was held up in Bhiwadi for close to three months. “ We led a minimalist life. We had the clothes we had brought with us. There were no amenities such as fridge and washing machine. We had a very basic television set and a not too good internet connection,” she said. Committed to running she had however carried her running and workout gear. During the first phase of lockdown, as there was no question of venturing out, she confined herself indoors doing strength training and stair workout.
When the lockdown eased a bit, she was able to step out of her house to the compound of her housing society in Bhiwadi and do slow runs around a 400 meter-loop. The lockdown came at a time when Seema was preparing for a long break to recover from a series of running injuries that had been plaguing her for some time. The focus therefore, was on strength training and yoga.
After being held up in Bhiwadi for 85 days, Seema has since shifted back to Faridabad and been venturing out for her daily run. “ Very early in the morning, I drive to village roads outside the city limits. The roads are empty and the villagers are just about getting ready to go about their daily chores,” she said of her current routine in running. At the time of writing her weekly mileage was around 50-55 kilometers.
Kavitha Reddy’s last run before the lockdown commenced, was sometime in mid-March. She did not run for the first 40 days of the lockdown. “ There was worry all around. Everything was new about the pandemic. I decided to take it easy. It was a good break for a change,” the Pune-based runner said.
In the absence of running events to focus on (events were cancelled due to pandemic), the hiatus was welcome. Besides it came against the backdrop of increased workload on the home front. However, she found time to do workouts otherwise relegated to the backdrop amid hectic training seasons. Sometime towards the end of April, Kavitha started running inside her housing complex. With a 700 meter-loop possible there, she ran twice or thrice a week.
Every total lockdown treads a thin line between people staying safe and the impact their retreat indoors has on the economy. For a population to survive, the economy has to function. Slowly the lockdown rules began to relax. In the next phase, Kavitha was able to run on the road outside her building. That gave her a slightly longer loop of 900 meters. “ On weekends, I run longer distances. Group runs are out for the moment. Also, with whoever I meet during a run, I try to maintain physical distance,” she said.
Given no races on the horizon, her current priority is building and maintaining baseline fitness. Consequently, for now Kavitha’s training does not include speed runs. “ We are running to keep ourselves going until we get back to conditions where races are possible,” she said. Notwithstanding the increase in strength training and other home-based workouts, she admitted, there is the lingering question of whether one can get back to previous levels of endurance.
Not running for a long period of time does impact aerobic fitness, Brijesh Gajera, Bengaluru-based amateur runner, told this blog. An employee of an IT company, Brijesh has been kept busy by work-from-home. He followed a fitness program that incorporated strength training, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and yoga. The house arrest of lockdown also unexpectedly gifted him the luxury of sleeping longer hours.
“ Early June, I started running outside wearing a bandana to mask my face. My weekly mileage is around 40-45 km a week compared with 70-80 km during pre-Covid-19 days,” he said. He has also been cycling once or twice a week. “Runners have stopped hugging and shaking hands when they meet. Also, during long runs they maintain distancing while at the same time, staying in sight of each other,” Brijesh said. As it is prudent to run closer to home in these times of uncertainty, Brijesh has been exploring new routes in the area where he resides in Bengaluru.
Brijesh had signed up for Silk Route Ultra, a 122 kilometer-run organized by Ladakh Marathon and scheduled for September 2020. He doesn’t know what its fate will be. On July 2, the event organizers informed that the main Ladakh Marathon had been cancelled owing to COVID-19 but the two elite races in its fold – Khardung La Challenge and Silk Route Ultra – were under “ review” with final decision expected by end-July.
In Chennai, amateur runner Lourdes Bosco pursued a mix of running and working out at home through the period of lockdown. As he put it, mobility was quite restricted in the first two months of the lockdown. But even then, he was able to steal a few small runs in the neighborhood. Bosco’s rationale was simple – with people gone indoors, the small roads in the vicinity of his house cleared up. An early morning jog was therefore possible. As the original nationwide lockdown progressively relaxed, its administration became more accommodating (it tightens in accordance with calibration at state and district levels). Some amount of running has resumed although not to the distances of before. Group runs are avoided and adequate physical distancing is maintained. “ Work outs – I do it sometimes in the house; sometimes at the playground or on the pavement outside,’’ he said. He does these work outs roughly three days a week. Bosco devotes anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half for his running and related exercises.
Bengaluru-based runner Shilpi Sahu was visiting her in-laws in Kannur, Kerala, when the lockdown was announced. She was held up there for seven weeks. And that meant no running.
For a runner, the absence of running can result in some loss of endurance. According to her, there is no substitute for running. Not running for an extended period of time leads to muscle tightness and niggling aches and pains, she said.
Shilpi started running towards the end of May, stepping out for short runs of about 40 minutes. Obviously, she is nowhere near her pre-COVID-19 level of running. “ I am trying to run 70-80 per cent of my peak mileage. I am also running at much lower pace,” she said adding that she steps out for a run alone or with her husband, who is also a recreational runner. She has been avoiding running in groups. Pandemic isn’t the time for that.
The lockdown worked positively and negatively for Mumbai-based runner and triathlete, Zarir Balliwala. These are tough times. For the businessman (Zarir manages Balliwala & Homi, an ophthalmic products company), the lockdown brought corresponding financial worry. The closure of swimming pools was another negative.
But otherwise, the lockdown has helped him pursue a fitness regime that entails a variety of physical activity – walking, strength training and stair workout; not to mention, catching up on much needed rest.
“ I have utilized the lockdown period well. I have been able to walk in my building complex, on a 300-meter loop. At home, I have been doing some dumbbell exercises, some bit of stair climbing, eating home food for every meal and catching up on sleep,” he said.
Sometime in May, Zarir took up the challenge of accumulating elevation gain equivalent to that of Mt Everest (8848 meters) in his building, over a period of 20 days. Zarir lives in South Mumbai, in a tower sporting 32 floors. In all, he climbed 3073 floors to cover 8848 meters. In June, he started running and cycling. His home workout and stair climbing made it easier for Zarir to get back into running and cycling with ease despite the long break that happened in between.
It was in mid-June that Vivek Pophale resumed his running. By then lockdown norms had begun easing. Running alone was not a problem for him. Earlier too, he had generally trained by himself. Vivek made his foray into recreational running in 2007, running half marathon races. After he joined the running group Life Pacers in 2017, he attempted his first full marathon in 2018.
The Navi-Mumbai-based amateur runner utilized the lockdown period to focus on an online workout schedule drawn up by his coach, Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Don) of Life Pacers. “ I was involved 100 per cent with this workout,” he said. He enjoyed that indoor exercise regimen. “ I would like to continue running, at least three times a week. Running events are unlikely for the next one year. My plan is to run at an easy pace without compromising my immunity,” Vivek said.
Embracing what you like to do and trying to make a career from it is not easy. There are challenges; not to mention – it is a lonely path with little of the comfort and belonging walking with the majority brings. As a young cyclist trying to make a livelihood from the sport, Sreenath Lakshmikanth has seen his share of ups and downs. It was in early March 2020 that he – Sreenath normally splits his life between Kochi and Bengaluru – shifted to Ooty (7350 feet elevation) to manage a bicycle store there. Ooty had seemed a good place to work and train. Three weeks after he reached the town in the Western Ghats, India courted nationwide lockdown.
Sreenath stays alone. In retrospect, the shift to Ooty appears God sent. Even under normal circumstances, the hills are not as heavily populated as the plains. With lockdown, things thinned out further; the traffic on roads faded. Sreenath didn’t have a home trainer with him. Elsewhere in India, what has kept cyclists occupied is the home trainer. They either pedal away on it or they connect it to virtual reality apps and experience a digital version of being out on the road and racing with others. Viewed so, Sreenath should have been terribly handicapped, parked in Ooty with no home trainer for relief. But things panned out differently in the hill town.
“ I have been lucky. If you remember, we had a one-day curfew that preceded the nationwide lockdown. That day was diligently observed everywhere. On that day, I too did not venture out at all. But otherwise, I have been able to train regularly. My training schedule did not suffer because of lockdown. The only alteration I did was to reduce the length of my endurance rides. That is because we don’t have any races happening at present and so I don’t need to train intensely. Overall, I would estimate that I maintained my training at 70 per cent efficiency,’’ he said. Shorter endurance rides must have also ensured that Sreenath’s outdoor forays remained closer to home and containable.
Worldwide, cycling has picked up as a safe and healthy mode of transport amid pandemic. The bike store Sreenath works at is the only one of its kind in Ooty. The lockdown has encouraged local interest in cycling. People have begun using the opportunity to take to their bicycles, Sreenath said.
Lower pace and easy running appeared the general story in many towns and cities, this July. Hyderabad-based Sunder Nagesh is back on the roads for his regular quota of running. But these days he is running at a reduced pace. As he is running after a gap of some months, he wants to be careful.
He had registered for the Comrades Marathon and also got through to the Chicago Marathon. Comrades Marathon, the ultra-marathon held in South Africa annually, was cancelled and a virtual event was held in its place. With several major races cancelled or postponed, question mark graces the Chicago Marathon too, particularly given the spread of infection in the US.
During the lockdown, Sunder was an active participant in the online workout sessions held by Hyderabad Runners. “ My plan is to continue with these online sessions and also run outside. But I wish to do more than running and start cycling as well,” he said.
Satya Tripathi resumed his running and cycling in early June after being confined indoors for over two months. But there has been no reliable direction in lockdown; the situation is fluid. Relaxations have relapsed to stringent local lockdown. By early July, that was the case in Navi Mumbai where Satya lives. Just when people breathed a sigh of relief with relaxed rules taking effect, the region went into a strict lockdown originally meant for 10 days and now extended by another six.
Overall the lockdown has impacted the momentum of endurance training, he said. Lack of space to move about is an issue. Running inside the apartment is not advisable as it can lead to injury. Satya stayed engaged with a range of indoor workouts and climbing the stairs of the 13-storey building at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, where he lives.
Satya has enrolled for ` Run to the Moon,’ a virtual run organized by NEB Sports, Participants are required to run a minimum of 65 kilometers and a maximum of 300 kilometers during the one-month period starting from June 20 and ending on July 20, 2020.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)