A Grassroots Perspective on the Impact of Covid-19

Hannah Lees – an England Athletics Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF – and her team of eight Leaders in Running Fitness (LiRF) have almost 650 grassroots runners on their database with 98% of those being female.

With a focus on road and trail running from 5k to full marathons, all of Hannah’s athletes are grassroots amateurs who train and compete around their daily commitments. With so many of her clients having hectic lifestyles, Hannah is keen that enjoyment is at the top of the list for her training sessions.

“I wanted to create the least intimidating running group I could possibly create. I’ve grown my coaching team by carefully selecting people who have started running recently; who don’t look like a ‘stereotypical runner’; or who have struggled with their mental health and are open about it”. 

Whilst many of the country’s elite athletes have struggled to keep up their intense training programmes during lockdown, grassroots runners like those in Hannah’s group have also suffered with all face-to-face coaching and group training banned for eight weeks from March to May.

“At the beginning of lockdown I couldn’t do anything. I thought about online coaching, but I felt that there was so much uncertainty over how catastrophic the pandemic was going to be and I was worried about encouraging people to run (both because they might spread the virus or that they hurt themselves) when we didn’t know how badly the NHS would be impacted”. 

In a typical week, Hannah and her group of coaches would lead sessions for anywhere between 80 and 100 runners. This of course all stopped for several weeks but as restrictions slowly started to ease and exercise with one other person from a different household was permitted, some of the ladies in Hannah’s running groups sought solace together in their daily exercise. 

 “A lot of my runners have children and, as has been widely reported, women have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – many of them recognised that this opportunity to get out once a day was the best way to ‘run off the crazy’!

 “Two in particular spring to mind. Amy and Gemma are friends who started running in January on one of my Couch to 5k courses and loved it. I don’t think they will mind me saying that they surprised themselves with how much they enjoyed running.

They both work in the NHS in frontline roles — Amy as a hospital nurse and Gemma in adult mental health — and both have young children. For both of them, socially-distanced running has been a break from the stress of their real lives and a chance to chat, laugh and sweat together”.

Being a mother herself, and a keen runner since 2014, Hannah feels she can empathise with her 630-or-so female runners over and above just being their ‘running coach’. “Periods, pelvic floor issues and the menopause get mentioned almost every session!”, she jokes.

With athletes under her tutorship ranging from their early teens to their late seventies, Hannah also sees a critical part of her role as being able to understand each athlete’s motivations.

Whilst many of her athletes run casually, she also has a number who compete and it is some of these who have found 2020 the most difficult. “Understanding different people’s feelings and perspectives has been important”, she explains. “For some of my group, racing was their chief motivator and without the threat/promise of a race they’ve struggled to get out and train”.

With such a range of ages and incentives, Hannah and her team of coaches also have to ensure that they know their athletes well enough to tailor their training programmes – recognising the boundaries of each individual athlete’s comfort zone is of critical importance.

“My whole team completely buys into the ethos of enjoying running on your own terms, at whatever level you want to train. We will absolutely push people to step outside their comfort zone, but with care and encouragement”. 

Social distancing

Hannah and her coaches’ efforts to get to know each athlete individually, coupled with Hannah’s own personal experiences have also allowed her to identify some interesting patterns amongst the group. “Being a mum has helped with being able to understand more fully how thinly mothers have to spread themselves”, she explains.

“I don’t like to generalise, but there are common patterns sometimes and a particularly interesting one is that for a lot of my athletes, pushing themselves very hard – going to that place where their lungs burn and their legs scream – isn’t possible even in a race because they know they will have to switch straight back to childcare afterwards”.

In other words, those with children are sometimes reticent to push themselves to a point where they might suffer after a particularly hard-run, because of the pressure of then having to look after their children whilst not feeling 100%. “This isn’t the case for everyone, but it is definitely a pattern that I’ve observed in women who take up running after having children”. 

Whilst Hannah’s team of running coaches currently comprises two male LiRF coaches – who she describes as chatty, approachable and non-competitive – and six females, Hannah recognises that more can still be done to get women and minority groups involved in coaching.

“I think it comes down to ‘you have to see it to be it’”, she explains. “We need more visible female coaches, but also women wearing the hijab; BAME women; LGBT+ people; people with disabilities; and more understanding of intersectionality as well. While women are underrepresented I could still see people like me running and coaching before I started doing it”.

And now that some semblance of normality is beginning to resume, what is on the agenda for Hannah and her team of runners? “Obviously we are coaching without any physical contact so all corrections are either verbal or through demonstration”, she says. “We’re social distancing and planning meeting points and routes to minimise pinch points and overcrowding, but ours is a sport that can be done outdoors and 2 metres apart”.

Hannah admits that there is still a reluctance amongst some runners to return to competition until Covid-19 is all over: “in some cases people don’t feel safe yet and for others the atmosphere is at least as important as racing, so they’re hanging on until we’re back to normal”. 

Author: Becki Hall is a life-long sports fan and has competed in track and field since the age of 11. She qualified as a personal trainer in 2016 and an athletics coach in 2019 after developing a love of sports coaching through working as a multi-sports coach on school holiday camps during her teenage years. She is passionate about encouraging female participation in sport and exercise, both in athletics and beyond. Becki works full-time as a marketing communications manager in the defence and aerospace industry and in her very little spare time still trains 5 times a week. When she is not competing at the weekends she is often found stood in the cold watching her partner play football or bemoaning her failed fantasy football team.