Most mornings, elite marathoner Shadrack Biwott heads out as the sun is coming up to tackle some trail miles near his home in Folsom, California. The 35-year-old says that during the coronavirus pandemic he’s adjusted to finish before things get crowded, and that he’s more thankful than ever for the opportunity to get out and move.
“I want to stay positive,” he says. “I’ve been able to train and keep a good chunk of my mileage without getting carried away—I’m keeping my head up.”
He says he’s not all that sure which, if any race he’ll be able to run this fall, so he—like many others—is simply leaning on his sport for some sanity and running slow. “It’s good, I think,” he says. “Slowing down is good for us all.”
Considering Biwott runs a marathon at close to five-minute pace, his “slowing down” is possibly a little different than yours. But he isn’t the only one headed outdoors for stress relief. With all indoor and group fitness classes officially on hiatus for the foreseeable future, it’s the perfect time to lace up a pair of running sneakers and log some cardio. And while the experts say that outdoor running is safe (like hiking, cycling, and other solo outdoor activities), there are some things you need to know to keep it that way.
Why you should be running right now
Let’s be clear about this off the bat: you are allowed to get outside and go for a run. Depending on where you live, it’s possible that certain trails, parks, and beaches are closed for public use, there are no large restrictions in place to prevent Americans from solo outdoor exercise. (In comparison, Italy has banned outdoor activities altogether).
“What we are trying to do as a society is manage risk,” says John Brownstein, PhD, an epidemiologist, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, and professor at Harvard Medical School. “By limiting mobility and contact, we slow the spread of infection, and potentially eliminate new cases that turn into hospitalizations that turn into deaths. But we all have to make decisions of what we can do in a safe manner right now that are fundamental to our mental health. Running as a solo activity is on that OK list.”
We’d go so far as to urge people to get outside and get their heart rate up. While it may be tempting to couch surf for hours on end, it’s extra important to move regularly during this time. Medical authorities recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week—which, doing the math, realistically looks like 30 minutes of exercise, five days per week. Not only does exercise manage stress and anxiety, but it can also give your immune system a helping hand, according to a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. To be clear, running will not make you immune to coronavirus—and realistically, any time spent outside raises your chances of contracting it. But right now is a great time to focus on your overall health, and with the right precautions, you can channel your inner Prefrontaine safely.
Three precautions to take
So we’ve established that you can, maybe even should go for a run. But you also have to mitigate your chances of contracting—or spreading— coronavirus while you’re out there.
1. Wash your hands
Yeah, of course you're scrubbing up when you get back. But make sure to carefully wash your hands before leaving the house, especially if you have to touch anything remotely communal: a doorknob, a handrail door, an elevator panel. This will reduce the likelihood of you transmitting the virus.
2. Get enough distance
Six feet is the bare minimum of space you’ll want between yourself and anyone, though more is better. This may mean finding a less-crowded route or trail—or, like Biwott, running at a less popular time of day.
“Running on a trail in the middle of nowhere definitely brings about a different set of risks versus running in a city,“ says Dr. Brownstein “Where you’re running alters your risk profile greatly.”
Is six feet enough? You’ve probably by now seen that highly debated Belgian-Dutch report that advises runners and cyclists to take extreme precaution outside, suggesting that runners stay 32 feet away from anyone in front of you (65 feet for cyclists). It’s been widely discounted by now, but Dr. Brownstein says that there is some merit to the idea of going above and beyond the six-feet suggestion during exercise.
“You want to keep yourself safe and respect those around you,” he says. “Breathing is a major component to transmission of COVID, and if you are releasing a huge amount of breath as you run, there’s certainly more potential to spread that in a larger radius around you. But no, not that large.”
In other words: If you have to swing wide, leave the sidewalk for the street, or wait for a good opening to pass people, do it.
3. Maybe wear mask
You should also at least consider running with some sort of mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires that all Americans going out into public should now wear cloth masks (reserving N95 for masks for healthcare workers) when the six feet of social distancing cannot be guaranteed. So be honest with yourself about whether you know you will always be able to get six feet. If you live in a rural area where you can make a quick drive to a wide, deserted dirt road? Great, we’re jealous, you can probably skip one. If you’ve got to run on narrow city sidewalks to reach a less-than-usually-crowded park? Wear a mask, if only to show others that you're considerate. For everything in between, use your judgement. But also know that a mask is not a replacement for getting sufficient distance—it’s better to run mask-free in an area where you know you won’t encounter anyone else than wear a mask in a crowded place.
Any cloth mask will do, but many runners are using a Buff, a tube of stretchy fabric that’s easy to pull up and down when . And know that wearing a mask makes breathing harder, so you might not be able to run as hard. Don’t fight it—just relax and turn down the pace a bit.
You should also plan to wash any mask you've run in often, given it's packed with your hot, wet running breath.
Four ways to make your quarantine run more enjoyable
So now, you’re out there. You’re on the move. What’s the best way to execute and actually enjoy yourself? Polly de Mille, RN, CSCS, and director of Tisch Sports Performance Center at HSS, has some tips for veterans and first-timers alike.
1. Do it alone, together
As we’ve already established, make sure you’re running alone. Now is not the time to cheat tackle track workouts with friends. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to stay connected to your buddies virtually, says de Mille. Start by using social apps like Strava or take it to the next level by signing up for a virtual race.
2. Start slow
If you’re using this time to start running, know that even if you’re a physically fit human, different types of activities tax the body in different ways. That means that even the most excellent swimmer or climber can end a run sore-kneed and wheezing. “Don’t take on too much, too soon,” says de Mille, suggesting some sort of walk/run combination for running newbies. (Try 3 minutes on, one minute off.) “You need to give your musculoskeletal system time to get adjusted. Your body needs time to adapt.”
3. Shift your goals
Serious runners have had their racing plans upended—all upcoming races have been cancelled or postponed. That means it’s a natural time to ease up on hard training, like track intervals. In fact, it’s suggested, says de Mille.
“We’re all under a lot of stress,” says de Mille. “Your body doesn’t necessarily differentiate between the sources, and cumulatively can have an impact on your immune system. Even though we may have more time to train right now, it’s not the optimal time to kick things into the next gear.” Instead, she recommends keeping things moderate and attainable. “You should feel better when you finish a run. If you’re feeling trashed you’re doing a little too much.”
4. Find the right gear
The last thing you want to do is injure yourself because you decided to aim for a 40-mile week in the wrong gear. Make sure you’re wearing actual running sneakers, and as the temperatures heat up, wear clothing with sweat wicking properties to keep you cool instead of a sweaty old cotton college T-shirt.
It Works For Me
Edith Zimmerman on the power of positive peer pressure and a half-walked run.
Originally Appeared on GQ