It’s not easy to cover hundreds of miles when you’re stuck inside. With global sporting events cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future and many types of training prohibited or significantly altered, international athletics and, by extension, international athletes have been hit hard by the lockdown. Sir Mo Farah has, however, managed to take it in his stride.
Farah, winner of four Olympic Gold Medals and a plethora of other titles, is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic Games history. He has competed and won at every distance from 5000 metres to marathon and had announced a return to the track for Tokyo 2020 last November to try and retain his 1st place position for the third time in a row. An Achilles injury may have slowed him down, but Farah was making good progress towards that goal before the coronavirus shut down races across the planet.
“At the time, in March, I was in a training camp in Ethiopia,” Mo smiles, “I pulled out of the London Big Half early on because of an Achilles problem, but once that settled down and got better I did four weeks of training.” However, as the pandemic became more prevalent this training regime was cut short. “It was just kicking off, I had to change my flight to come back home and make sure that when lockdown happened I was with my family, so that’s what I did. Since then it’s been nothing.”
Farah is committed to his family, constantly referencing them as we discuss staying motivated amidst so much confusion. They occasionally appear in the background of our Zoom call, having clearly inherited some extremely speedy genes. They also feature prominently in Sir Mo’s YouTube channel, which boasts an impressive 139,000 subscribers. The content of the videos has shifted recently, with more family challenges and less training videos. That’s not to say, however, that his training has dropped off.
“I normally do between 100-150 miles a week and a lot of the time I’m in the gym three times a week” smiles Mo as he describes his average training regime, “most of my running’s been on the treadmill, I’ve even done hill sessions on the treadmill.” He rattles off this regime as if it were easy, maintaining a positive tone as he describes the most gruelling elements of his training. If there is one word to describe Sir Mo, it has to be motivated. He seems to have sprinted through circumstances that have robbed many of us of all our motivation. The secret, he says, is setting your eyes on the finish line.
“You always have to have a goal and have ambition and look beyond this. I’m one of the lucky people in the way that I still have a treadmill here, I have a bit more space than everyone else. You always have to try to think positive and that’s what I try to do with my kids. We try not to go into too much detail and always be negative so, in a way, it’s like, ‘let’s go and have a laugh, kids! What can we do?’ Go in the pool, go in the garden, go and do challenges. Just keep your mind active.” He tries to get the kids to run at least a mile every day if they aren’t out on their bikes, making sure that there is always something to focus on to get through the day.
Keeping your mind active is one thing, but looking beyond the pandemic is quite another. Social distancing will likely last for months, leaving athletes whose training depends on upcoming events in a difficult position. I put this to Farah, asking if he has any specific event in mind with regard to his training. “My aim has always been the Tokyo Olympics,” he replies, “that’s what really drives me to stay on my feet, stay motivated, stay hungry. That’s what my goal is, ultimately.” Although his goal has stayed concrete, the circumstances will have changed drastically by the time his shoes touch the track.
The travel industry is set for massive losses, and recent developments in the UK’s quarantine plans mean that going abroad won’t be an option for the foreseeable future. This is an issue for athletes who rely on travel for everything from altitude training to World Championships. “It’s definitely going to have a knock-on effect, no matter what,” says Mo. “I’m trying to stay positive.”
Another huge problem for organisers is that it is extremely difficult to have socially-distant spectators in stadiums. Korean football has got past this by staging games with no crowds at all, or even filling the seats with poorly-chosen humanoid dolls. An eerie silence has replaced the cheering and chanting in these stadiums, which poses a problem for athletes who thrive off the crowd’s energy. “There’s no question about. The crowd is everything. It drives you, it puts you on your toes, it puts you on edge. Without the crowd, I think it’s going to be totally different.” The roaring crowd which has accompanied all of Sir Mo’s signature sprint finishes will probably be absent the next time he runs. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but Farah manages to keep sight of what is most important.
“Without the crowd it’s going to be boring but, at the same time, it’s what we need to do to make it as safe as possible.” Speaking as “a massive Arsenal fan”, it’s clear that even if he agrees that having football without spectators is odd, “If it means we can have football back and this is how it’s got to be for a little while then we just have to stick at it because it’s the safety of the players. But as an Arsenal fan, I’m thinking ‘man, I don’t like the look of that!’ Imagine seeing the whole stadium empty…”
These concerns are still firmly in the future, for now it’s a question of adapting his training in the present. His commitment to the treadmill means that he can still cover the distance, but training has lost a key social element. “It can be lonely at times. It depends who you have and how much you enjoy it. Whatever you put into it is what you get out of it, whereas in football if you can have a bad day but there are ten more players who can help you recover.” Reliance on a team dynamic is something that Sir Mo doesn’t have to worry about as much as team players. “I think it will have a really big effect,” he notes, acknowledging that each player training as an individual could cause serious issues when football starts back up.
Hammering out 10-mile sets in isolation is no mean feat, but Farah says that Team GB has “handled it in a positive way by trying to put athletes first.” The period of uncertainty leading up to the Olympics’ postponement was a particular cause for anxiety, but “once that settled down we got the comfort of thinking ‘I have a date’… The goal is to always have something to aim for. That’s what you thrive off, and that’s what gives you that boost, that energy and motivation.” Recovering from his aforementioned Achilles injury, Farah had set his sights on the Olympics knowing that he faced an uphill battle. The weeks leading up to the announcement that the Olympics would be held in 2021 were particularly stressful because, as other races in the UK were called off, Farah had no way of testing himself. “If I hadn’t run other competitions it would have been crazy to run in the Olympics,” says Mo, emphasising that he’s glad that the focus has been on the safety of athletes first and foremost.
Even if their safety is put first, the consequences of the lockdown on mental health still weigh on athletes. “To be honest at this point they haven’t spoken that much about mental health,” Mo states, “They had a target, their target’s been cancelled. I’ve been there and done it so many years that I can overcome that but for some younger athletes I think they will have that in their minds. It’s important to support them in general, not even just in sports.” I suggest that public figures like Sir Mo have an important role to play in keeping up morale across the country, to which he beams: “I think that’s always the key for me. As a general thing, I love to be able to help others. A five-minute phone call is just five minutes for me, but that could make that kid’s day. When I was younger I loved football and if one of the Arsenal players said ‘hi’ to me that would have made my day. We used to collect stickers, I remember that we used to get excited about stickers, so imagine one of the players in real life saying ‘hi’ or saying something to you.”
Farah’s reach has been massively increased by social media. He uses Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to engage with viewers and fans, retweeting letters from children and entertaining on Instagram live streams. He has also participated in the 5K challenge which, in classic Mo style, he did as part of a 10-mile training session from home. Asked his time, he replies “oh, was it 18 or 19 minutes?” He smiles the most when he talks about how much he enjoys helping others out in a time of crisis and is in the middle of telling me how much easier it is to stay connected by social media when our call cuts out. “It’s an easy way to stay connected…” are the last words I catch.
We manage to reconnect, and the focus shifts beyond running. It’s hard to face the distant future when the next few months hold so much uncertainty, but Farah’s plan seems clear. “When I finish running completely, I’d love to be able to give back to the younger kids and get involved more with coaching. I’ve actually just got my coach’s license so I’m actually qualified, which is a good thing to have. Particularly young kids in Britain, there are a lot of kids with potential who are good enough, but it’s always hard to make that transition from juniors to seniors. For me I just see myself as a coach. I’m also not bad with kids, having four kids myself.”
Sir Mo retains a lightness throughout the interview that makes it hard not to smile along with him. He’s also positive about the future of running as a leisure activity in Britain, saying: “back in the day we saw running as something that you had to do in PE, or as a warm-up. Most people, if you tell them ‘you must do this’, they’re most likely not going to do it. Running’s a great way of getting everything out. It clears your mind and you’re in a different zone.”
Farah is very clearly still going for gold. We haven’t seen the last of the ‘Mobot’ yet, but until then he has to bear with lockdown and continue to train. With questions about the feasibility of the 2021 Olympics continuing and lockdowns relaxing across the world, it is extremely difficult to stay motivated. Sir Mo is an example of the positive, goal-oriented attitude we need to make it to the finish line. “We’re all human at the end of the day,” he remarks as the interview ends, “we just have to try to be positive in every way that we can.”