A recent conversation with a nurse evoked a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic. The floor on which she worked had just had several patients die from COVID-19 in rapid succession. One particularly sad case involved a man saying his final goodbye to his mother, both infected with COVID-19, through a video call because they couldn’t be in the same room as the mother passed away. The nurse said that she felt exhausted, as if she was running a marathon that has gone on, day after day, without an end in sight.
She’s right. The pandemic has placed us all into an endurance event. But unlike a marathon, triathlon, or mud run, we didn’t opt into this. It was forced upon us. While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has given greater clarity to what the “finish line” of this endurance test is, we still don’t know when we will get there. Worse yet, the new-normal of pandemic life has not only created intense new stresses, it does so in a way that makes us feel deprived and isolated, removing social supports that might otherwise keep us going. It’s enough to make anyone feel exhausted.
So as we head deeper into the winter – with the excitement of the holidays behind us, new hotspots of COVID-19 emerging, and new variants of the virus on the rise – a boost for our mindset is useful. If the COVID-19 pandemic is like an endurance event, let’s look to what endurance athletes do. Eight strategies, commonplace amongst the best endurance racers, are suggested below to promote resilience, fight off burnout, and help us all sustain our efforts.
1. Set goals. The cornerstone recommendation for endurance training is to know what you’re training for. The more concrete the goal, the easier it becomes to motivate oneself and conscientiously put in the effort needed to achieve that goal. If one day you were to look back on the pandemic, what is something that you would feel proud of if you could accomplish it? Setting that as a milestone will help undo the uncertainty that the pandemic has created and provide you motivation through the next months.
2. Practice with purpose. The best athletes find purpose in every workout. Taking time to center themselves around a purpose for each workout ensures progressive development. Similarly, a moment of mindfulness, taken each day to remind ourselves that what we do matters, can help us continue to perform our best in the face of adversity … and make our best get even better every day.
3. Celebrate the little successes. In both the pandemic and heavy endurance training, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge lying before us. The best athletes balance being mindful of the big picture with an ability to celebrate even small successes, for each of those minor victories that helps sustain the overall effort and advances them towards the larger goal. A similar outlook – knowing that it will be the sum of many small successes that gets us through the pandemic – can help sustain our own efforts and stave off burnout.
4. Rest up. During heavy endurance training, rest is treated with as much importance as the actual workouts, as it is a vital part of one’s ability to sustain and get better. As the pandemic stretches on, it is equally important that we reserve constructive rest time for ourselves. This includes conscientiously practicing healthy sleep habits, watching how much we drink and avoiding harmful substance use, and (yes) taking time to exercise.
5. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t let them paralyze you. Great athletes analyze when things don’t go as intended, so that they can avoid repeating those mistakes. But if something in a key race doesn’t go as planned, they also take it in stride and don’t let it derail their focus. A similar strategy can be useful for practicing in the current high-stress environment. Think to the last time something didn’t go how you wanted to: what can you learn from that moment, and how might you prevent that from happening again in the future?
6. Practice positive mental imaging. Successful athletes actively project a positive attitude, a mentality of “I can do it.” Many even practice visualizing a successful race – including how they will adapt if things don’t go as planned. If you’re in medicine, then you no doubt have exceptional drive and determination that has led you to overcome the rigors inherent to a difficult profession. Channeling the same drive and determination to create a determined but optimistic outlook will allow you to keep powering through any hurdles created by the pandemic.
7. Trust your training. Every endurance athlete finds themselves at a point where they question whether they can keep going. The best tie each part of the race back to a part of their training that they successfully conquered. In doing so, they’re reminded how each facet of training has prepared them for each bit of the race. Whatever your level of medical training, you possess a unique skillset that has the power to make a hugely positive impact on the world.
8. Don’t get complacent. Most people who perish on Mount Everest do so on the way down, after having already crested the summit. The best endurance athletes know that talent and luck can only take them so far; at some point diligent work plays the determining role. With several promising COVID-19 vaccines now in distribution, it can be very tempting to let our guard down, thinking that the “end is in sight.” We must ensure that we don’t fall into that trap.
Certainly, these are not the only traits of disciplined endurance racers. But they can be easily translated to give us all the courage to keep going and successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through to the very end. Stay strong.
Doug Ornoff is an internal medicine physician. David Williams is a medical student.
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