As runners, we’re conditioned to work hard, push through and endure discomfort for long periods. However, continuing to push can, at times, be detrimental to our physical and emotional health. Andrea Seccafien found herself emotionally and physically taxed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and struggled with the fact that she had sustained an injury – a mental health injury. The Canadian half-marathon record holder, World Championship finalist and sub-15 5,000m runner experienced severe anxiety in March and April as the realities of the pandemic settled in, and for the first time in a long time, needed to take a break from running for the sake of her mental health.
Seccafien, originally from Guelph but now living in Melbourne, Australia, describes hearing the announcement that the Olympics would be postponed and feeling numb. “It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when we had been in lockdown and I was training alone, that I started going backward in workouts,” she says. “I had a small knee issue and so I didn’t run for a few days. But even after that small break, I wasn’t running well. It was a mental thing at that point.”
Once Seccafien and her Melbourne Track Club teammates were able to meet again, she hoped she’d feel better – but the opposite happened. “We were able to meet as a group again and I would start getting really anxious about my performance in workouts, and running really badly. This was in May.” Shortly after, with the help of the Athletics Canada medical team, Seccafien decided to take a month-long break.
Seccafien describes the process: “I so badly wanted this to be a physical problem. I was getting my iron and thyroid checked with blood work. I wanted the doctors to tell me that I could just up my iron dosage and everything would be better. The worst part was that I felt ashamed. My teammates went to Europe, and they ran really fast, and I just couldn’t. I kept asking myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ It seemed like everyone else could.” Seccafien’s medical team explained to her that this was something she, technically, could train through, but that it would only prolong the symptoms.
The sooner, the better
Penny Werthner is a sports psychologist and dean of the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary who’s also an Olympian in the 1,500m. Werthner says the sooner a mental health issue is addressed, the better. “Conversations have advanced recently in our field. We want to give help before people get to the stage where they’ve reached panic attacks or irregular sleep. We want to help people before they reach severe symptoms.”
Werthner says the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder may include social withdrawal, lack of motivation, lower energy, trouble sleeping, feeling generally sad or overwhelmed, excessive drinking, or irritability.
There’s still a stigma
“It’s easier to hang an injury on something physical,” said Seccafien. She feels there’s certainly less stigma around a physical injury. Werthner echoes Seccafien, “We’re working to correct this, but we still have much work to do.”
Beyond stigma, it can be difficult for athletes to reconcile their mental health struggles with the desire for mental toughness – something that’s touted as exemplary, especially in endurance athletes. At times, Seccafien says, the two felt at odds with each other. “I was inclined to push through my anxiety at first, to be ‘tough’, but things kept getting worse. I was running really badly.”
Werthner explains that athletes in particular have trouble with this, they’re less likely to admit to poor mental health because they feel they should just be stronger or work harder. But she says, without good mental health, mental toughness isn’t possible. “Really, mental toughness just means being prepared for competition. But if you’re struggling with other things, mental toughness doesn’t matter anymore. If you have a mental injury, you can’t just keep training. You need to deal with the mental illness part before we can expect mental toughness.”
Social media has become a powerful tool for runners. It has allowed them to expand their reach, speak on meaningful topics and make more money. Essentially, social media has become a part of the elite runner’s job description (if they want to get paid). However, social media is increasingly part of the conversation as something that can be hard on people’s mental health, because of the potential for unhealthy comparison and for public shaming. And checking one’s account for external validation in the form of likes and compliments can easily become a compulsion.
Seccafien felt that social media made her anxiety worse, so she took a break from that, too. “Athletes usually portray, ‘I’m so tough, or, control what you can control’ on their feeds. But no one was saying, ‘Oh, I’m having a really tough time.’ I found when speaking face-to-face, I could find out how people were really doing. So, if I wanted to connect, I would message someone I’m close with and speak on the phone.”
It was partly the lack of conversation about mental health on social media that made Seccafien want to speak out. “This year is extremely difficult. I think more people need to talk about their personal experiences. A lot of people dealt with anxiety, it’s not just me. So hopefully this can help someone else to speak up, too.”
When it comes to social media, Werthner recommends a few tricks for constructive use. “Social media can be hard on a person’s mental health, but I’m not saying get rid of it, I’m suggesting people look at how much of their life it’s taking up. If it’s taking up too much time, limit it.”
For a long time, it was thought that in order to compete at the highest level of the sport, you needed to devote your life to running – to treat it as your only job. But when running is your job, the pressures of practice and competition can become overwhelming, just like in any profession. Werthner feels that singular devotion to the sport isn’t necessarily needed for success, and that athletes could benefit from having meaningful hobbies or work outside of their professional running career. “We’ve done a great disservice to our athletes by not suggesting that they have other things in their lives outside of training. Whether it’s school or work, having something else to occupy your mind and define yourself beyond running is key for emotional wellbeing.”
Seccafien is training again and in really good shape. She ran a 10,000m last night at the Zatopek10, where she finished is 31:45 (four seconds off of the Canadian record), and she has come out of her experience with a better understanding of her mental health and tools to keep her feeling good. “In workouts I now break the intervals into more manageable sections. For example, if I’m doing kilometre repeats, I tell myself to get to the next sign, then get to the next tree – instead of seeing it as 8 x 1K. It’s easier to wrap your mind around 200m at a time. I also now think about what I want my body to do, instead of how far I have to go. And when I’m really struggling – workouts are super hard right now – I count to 10. It’s shockingly effective. If you’re following someone, just look at their back and count to 10, and you’ll probably feel better.” Seccafien’s final piece of advice to runners – perfection is futile. “Some days it’s just about getting the running done, not about getting it done perfectly.”