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Going the social distance

Feidhlim Kelly who coaches some of Ireland’s leading athletes in his group, the Dublin Track Club, talks to Bernard Potter about the realities of life for competitive and recreational runners in lockdown

The need for the Government measures taken to counter the spread of Covid-19 are understood by the running community but their inevitable effect has been to completely up-end the carefully structured training and racing schedules that competitive runners, in particular, had in place. 

One of the country’s leading coaches, Feidhlim Kelly, who works with some of our most accomplished runners, explains: “Covid-19 has affected every aspect of our daily lives, and from the perspective of competitive runners, it has had an unprecedented impact. International runners prepare meticulously and invest time and money in their running. In many instances, individuals had suspended their livelihoods to take part in the Olympics. In the case of athletes, for whom running is at the centre of their lives, it’s a profound disruption to have to deal with.”

The social network

The absence of any organised group racing or training has also presented challenges to the wider family of runners, according to Kelly: “The recreational runner has a different attitude to an elite runner but one thing a lot of us have in common is that we thrive on the sense of occasion and the excitement that surrounds an event, whether it’s the Raheny 5-miler or the Dublin Marathon.

“Certainly, a significant number of people love running on their own, but many love meeting with people, the enjoyment of running in company, running beside someone. For them, these last few months have been difficult.”

Back when social distancing wasn’t a thing. Gerard O’Donnell of Carrick-on-Shannon AC is congratulated by Feidhlim Kelly. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile.

Coaching during Covid-19

From Kelly’s own perspective, he has continued to coach but he has had to take a different approach. “As a coach, the greatest impact you can have is to be physically there during training to be on the coalface with the runner, getting the direct visual and verbal feedback. And in many ways, for me, that’s where I get the most joy in coaching. That on-the-spot observation is not there now, and there’s no real substitute for it. But I’ve just had to accept the situation and adapt to it.”

During the first couple of months of the lockdown, technology proved to be a valuable coaching tool: “I think runners have certainly benefitted from it. There’s a lot of useful tech available, from YouTube training videos to WhatsApp messaging to Strava, which allows a wide range of critical stats to be recorded. So, although it’s not ideal, I’ve still been able to offer meaningful coaching input.”

And there are potential upsides, he believes: “From a coaching point of view, it puts you in the position of placing more trust in the athlete and it encourages a greater sense of responsibility in the runner. When you’re not there, it’s up to the runner to put in the effort. For some runners that additional responsibility can actually strengthen their commitment.”

Don’t forget to smile

It is important to have a positive attitude when running on the streets and in public places in this strange time of social distancing, Kelly says: “People are, understandably, on edge and there’s a certain anti-running feeling out there. All the more reason to run with a smile and to be as courteous as possible, to put everyone at ease.”

Working with what you’ve got

The slight lifting of restrictions, and Athletics Ireland’s announcement of  a return to limited activity for clubs in May was welcome, Kelly acknowledges, but the changes, he feels, are marginal in their effect: “When you’re working with athletes within a radius of 5km, you’re still limited to running work that suits the terrain they have access to within that restricted area. You have to work with what you’ve got. In working out training programmes you have to adjust paces and times, and generally accommodate the circumstances the runner has to deal with.”

On the prospects for the longer term return to organised runs and training in groups, he notes: “When you consider some clubs have very large memberships, big club events are just not feasible. Above everything else, though, I think the two-metre distancing regulation continues to be a major obstacle for the sport of running.

“The main thing about returning to the track is that it’s important to recognise the elite athletes and get them access to train properly. They need to be able to train properly, just as other top athletes such as Premier League footballers are doing. Let them train in their small groups as they normally do. There shouldn’t be 2m distancing. It’s unrealistic. If athletes are fit and healthy, when they train together they can’t get sick because they are, as it says on the tin, fit and healthy. If two people don’t have a cold and run together, how can they get a cold from each other? Common sense must prevail at some stage.”

On the other hand, one of the positive effects of the lockdown for running has been an increase in the number of casual runners: “I’m doing more running myself and I’ve noticed a definite increase in runners on the streets. Based on the kind of shoes I’m seeing people wearing – sneakers, tennis shoes, everything but proper running shoes – it’s clear that a lot of people are taking up running for the first time!”

The road ahead

Looking to the end of the year, Kelly believes it is unlikely that the European Cross Country Championships, due to be hosted here in December, will go ahead. “The practicalities of international travel particularly for teams from a range of countries just don’t seem feasible from where we’re standing right now.”

In general, runners will have to be patient: “As things stand, we’re looking at a gradual, step-by-step approach to opening up the country particularly as there’s always the possibility of subsequent waves of Covid-19.”

Missing the Marathon

In relation to the cancellation of landmark competitions this year, from the Olympics to the Dublin Marathon, Kelly says that, for the lucky ones, the chance will come round again: “In relation to those who, due to age or other reasons, were looking at the Olympics this year as their last opportunity to take part in the competition, it will be heartbreaking. But runners are inclined to be resilient, it’s part of the job description, and, while it won’t be easy, many will find there are new goals to strive for and achieve.

“Obviously, the fact that the Dublin Marathon is not going ahead is a huge disappointment. For many runners, the Dublin Marathon is their Electric Picnic. But cancellation was inevitable when you look at the circumstances. A lot of people view the marathon as a one-off personal challenge, a bucket list thing. Almost always, however, those runners could do with the additional year’s preparation and a greater level of fitness; so, for them, the wait may prove to be of benefit. One way or another, the first Dublin Marathon after Covid-19 will have a real cachet.”

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