Megan Roche’s view of coaching and epidemiology during COVID
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Megan Roche’s world all coalesced: running coach, runner and epidemiologist. But, at least outside of medical conferences, she has a go-to when introducing herself to someone new.
“My first answer is always, I'm a coach,” she says. “That's where honestly, quite frankly, I've learned the most through coaching about life, about human physiology, about psychology. And so, I usually start with coach and then I broaden it out and talk about my interest in medicine and epidemiology and running myself.”
Her primary paths of running and medicine developed during her early days at Duke University.
“It was around freshman year of college when I became interested in medicine. I went to college knowing that I loved math and science, particularly chemistry and biology. And I was kind of thinking about what I wanted to do with that love of math and science, and it led me to the route of thinking about medicine. And where I went at Duke, they had this amazing pre-med program where I got to work with some doctors early on and just really fell in love with that path right around in that freshmen and sophomore year of college.”
Two years ago she went into epidemiology, which almost no one knew at the time.
“I remember talking to my dad and he was like, ‘Megan, I've never heard of this,’” She recalls. “He referred to it as the WTFology for the longest time.”
While in medical school, Roche conducted research on athletes, specifically female athletes. That led to opportunities to continue similar research projects and then down the path of epidemiology with a focus on athletes.
“It was this very cool way of weaving in all of my interests and everything that I enjoy doing,” she says. “It kind of worked out really well. And then, it turns out a year after being into the program, epidemiology becomes highly relevant for the entire population. It's been interesting to see that transition as a lot more people gain an understanding of what epidemiology is and the importance of population health.”
Dealing with the pandemic
Roche and her husband, David, are the inspirational coaching forces at the helm of Some Work All Play (SWAP). Their clients cover a broad spectrum of runners, from the very elite to age-groupers to weekend warriors.
Beyond the training plans and positive vibes, their athletes — myself included — are able to receive thoughtful guidance on dealing with the pandemic as it pertains to their running lives. It’s been challenging for athletes who last year in large part opted for FKTs and virtual races. As society begins to re-open and races restart, how do athletes balance the desire to travel and race with the ongoing pandemic?
“That's a fantastic question,” she says. “There are still so many unknowns out there. I think the biggest thing that I learned early on in COVID was just how much we didn't know. This is totally unprecedented in terms of that we're dealing with this on a population level, just the sheer nature of the number of people who have had COVID. I am hopeful. I think by June or July, things will be a lot safer for people to travel and to race.”
A key to that optimism is the vaccine rollout.
“It was a little slow at first, but I’m happy to see that it's picking up pace,” she says. “By June or July, things will start to look a lot more normal for people, which is exciting. But, I think the caution there is that as people get vaccinated, it's just so important to keep wearing masks, being smart, not having big parties, things along those lines, just because we're still learning so much about these variants.”
With the pandemic, science is learning on the go. Even after a second vaccination, the recommendation is for people to wear masks in a plane or indoors public places. However, there is a debate about whether to wear masks outside.
“From my experience, there's very little transmission of COVID in outdoor adventure environments,” she explains. “I would say this, though. I always err on the side of caution with these things. Even though I know that COVID probably isn't being transmitted outdoors quite as much, I just always err on the side of caution. Why take the risk when wearing a mask or having a buff around your neck is a relatively simple measure? It's not like we're asking people to take medication or do these complicated things. It's a pretty simple strategy.”
And it’s not only about protecting oneself, Roche is quick to point out.
“It's very challenging going through a pandemic. A lot of people may have a newfound fear of illness after this. I think the mask also allows people to feel comfortable around you. It's about protecting yourself and it's also allowing those around you to feel comfortable and respected, and that may continue for a little bit.”
Athletes and vaccines
While few people have an issue with the first vaccine, it's generally the second one that creates a short-term reaction. Just like with training plans, the Roches approach each athlete as a unique individual.
“The vaccine response is highly individual,” she says. “We've had a good number of athletes get the vaccine at this point. We have some athletes who don't feel a thing. Their training schedule is pretty normal. And we have other athletes who are down for the count for five or six days, resting or doing easy shuffling. In general, it is the second dose where athletes have that stronger response and really feel more of these side effects, things like fatigue, body aches, chills, sore throat, any number of these things, even loss of appetite.”
As a coach, Roche takes the cautious approach, dialing back the athlete’s training a day or two before the second dose to make sure that their body is able to mount a strong immune response. “This is the time the body is working hard to produce antibodies and we just want to support that as much as possible.”
The Roches have personal experience with COVID.
About six weeks ago, they were both sick with mostly GI symptoms, and Megan had some chest pain. While Megan’s COVID test was negative, the lab somehow lost David’s result.
“Both of us felt a little fatigued, but we had some strong workouts throughout,” she says. “But what I was noticing was, as I was returning back to running, just having this abnormal feeling of lung pain after running. I did one really hard workout. Hell workout. All of a sudden, it felt like someone cut off the circulation to my lungs. It's normal to have some lung pain with harder efforts, specifically in the cold or altitude, but this just felt very different.”
She decided to get an antibody test, which wound up being IgG positives, indicating a past infection. That
suggests that she had COVID, which explains their recent sickness.
“We don't usually get sick,” she says. “So, that was definitely a red flag. I don't think I've been sick in five years. Everyone's COVID response is so different and ours was fortunately pretty mild compared to what I've seen, in the general population or working with athletes.”
Building toward races
With early summer appearing to be the turning point, many athletes are looking ahead to getting back to racing in summer or later this year. For now, Roche remains committed to her training and looking ahead to the start line once again.
“Right now, I haven't committed to anything,” she says, noting she has recovered from some lung pain a couple of weeks ago. “I had a great workout this morning. I'm starting to build the long runs. So, my goal is just to get my body ready for a race, and then kind of get a lay of the land, see what's out there.”
She is looking ahead to June or July. “I think that's a timeline when things will, hopefully, be safe, maybe even sooner if there's something local, but I'm definitely ready to race and I'm eyeing things and getting ready to, hopefully, throw down.”
When not throwing down at a race, the Roches are dishing out the coaching knowledge, including their "Happy Runner" book from a few years ago and their weekly podcast that began last year.
The idea began one night at dinner when they were “talking about the science of running, talking about life, talking about all these things.” Why not record these conversations, she thought?
“Our goal with the podcast is to combine life and running and science all in one, and do it in a semi-structured way, where we have some key points that we want to hit throughout, but it's mostly us just like riffing, two of us,” she explains. “We just felt there was a missing need for that. For us, the time to sit down and record together in the middle of a busy work week is a date in some sense. It's a very intimate time to be together. We were excited about it from that standpoint, too.”
There is no shortage of podcasts, especially ones for runners and other endurance athletes. Some recap races, while others glean information from coaches. For athletes, listening to podcasts can be a way to educate themselves about training, nutrition and more.
“I think listening to running podcasts is a great way to understand different coaches' philosophies,” she recommends. “And then, even just following key athletes on Strava. I think David and I have learned a lot from looking at what other athletes are doing, how they're responding, while also keeping in mind that, I think that one of the big principles of Strava is that every athlete is so different. Every athlete responds very differently to training. It's really about just tracking data points over time, whether that's your own data points or another athlete's data points.”
It's all part of the learning process for an athlete, much like the past year has been for running coaches, runners and medical professionals.
Looking back, Roche says the pandemic allowed many athletes to step back and re-evaluate what they're doing. Just getting out the door for a training run helped them formulate why they are doing what they’re doing.
“It's really exciting now that races are opening up, that we can take that internally structured why, and apply it to racing and apply it back to more normal life,” she says. “And athletes have developed a lot of resiliency. It’s almost like many athletes have gone through an injury without having an injury because they're forced to step back. They're forced to take training a little bit slower. That resiliency is going to continue to propel great performances for years to come.”
Name: Megan Roche Hometown: Boulder, Colorado Number of years running: 9 years How many miles a week do you typically run: 50 to 75 miles Point of pride: Taking the trail less traveled in medicine by skipping medical residency to be able to run, coach and podcast while doing research. Who inspires you: Lizzo. Talk about a brilliant female boss who has hustled for years to get to her position in the music industry. Favorite race distance: 50K trail racing Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Awesome Sauce by Spring Energy. Delicious, real food for awesome performances. Favorite piece of gear: AfterShokz Aeropex Headphones — great for max volume, safe trail running! Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Shake it Out by Florence and The Machine Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: BELIEVE by Ted Lasso Where can other runners connect or follow you: