Tips for Running During the COVID-19 Crisis (or Any Life-Altering Time)

Stay the CourseWhat a troublesome, strange, and challenging time we’re living in. As we settle into nearly a month of coronavirus defense, many of us are thinking, Now what? With most of our racing calendar wiped out and our lives upended by a pandemic, where does this leave running?

Thinking more broadly, life offers plenty of situations that can mess with a training routine. A short-term move to a radically new locale, a business trip, or vacation to a running-unfriendly area might similarly challenge that prized running routine.

So how do we balance running amid whatever challenge life presents us, including today’s? This is a new virus creating a novel set of life circumstances, which means there’s no easy or correct answer. Here I offer my best advice as a medical professional and coach.

Keep Running If You Can

If you are allowed by local regulations to and feel healthy, then run!

More than anything, runners run because it is a crucial part of our lifestyle and well being. It is an act that brings peace, joy, friendship, solitude, and passion. Those motivations don’t go away in times like these, though they may be placed at a different spot on the priority spectrum. For some of us, that may be even higher than before for the mental and physical health it helps us maintain now. For others of us, motivation can naturally wane in this problematic time.

But the logistics of running right now are just plain different from normal. Some of us are nearly completely out of work, and some of us might be working from home with a simplified daily schedule. We may be the ones with more time to train. And some of us are at home working with our spouses and kids also needing extra time and attention. We may have less time in the day for ourselves.

While each runner’s needs are unique, there is one common thread: we should still run if we can.

Be Consistent and Establish a Routine

Consistency and routines are crucial to successful running. For the bulk of us, as adult working professionals, having a routine has always been crucial for successful running.

Now, in this bizarro world, it’s key to re-establish a routine. If you’re one of those overwhelmed working professionals-turned-homeschool-teachers, running might seem nearly impossible. But rest assured, a couple miles a day is all it takes to keep a ball rolling.

Be Conservative When Starting New Exercises

If you find yourself unable to run in public and you don’t have a treadmill, you might find yourself improvising. Over the past few weeks, runners have been looping around backyards, rooftops, and even a singular couch in the name of getting mileage.

While such ingenuity and commitment is admirable, it can also be a recipe for acute aches, pains, and overuse injuries. We’re just not used to, say, four 90-degree turns per 100 feet or less or the sawtooth of 60% grade up and down a standard staircase. Your aerobic system might easily handle such feats, but their novelty places a different load on the musculoskeletal system. As such, ease your way into these workouts.

Train Like a High Schooler

Try training like a high schooler, which has shown us that significant training quality and fitness results can be accomplished in a finite amount of time. In high-school training’s modest volumes, we:

  • Run most days of the week;
  • Run fast a couple times a week; and
  • Run long once a week.

For most of us, this means:

  • 30 to 60 total miles per week (especially if we’re used to 50- to 80-plus miles a week);
  • Short tempo runs of 2 to 4 miles and short fartlek/interval sessions of 1 to 3 miles;
  • Moderate long runs (as little as 8 to 10 miles for some of you, and runs of 20 miles or less for the ultramarathon folk); and
  • Minimal to moderate verticality, technicality, and remoteness.

This high-school-style training delivers consistent training frequency and volume, a good mix of easy and hard running, and supplies it in a sustainable way. Perhaps more important than the training benefits, running like a high schooler can help keep you and your community safe.

Avoid Running Too Far, Fast, or Remotely

The coronavirus defense is a lot about the virus’s potential second-order effects and us systemically trying to avoid overloading the medical system with any health need.

When faced with a novel viral threat, we need our immune systems functioning at peak ability. First, we need to avoid running too far or fast because it may compromise our immune system. So despite the urges we ultrarunners may have, avoiding huge efforts of distance and/or intensity is of utmost importance, even if it’s in the safety of one’s own home, yard, or neighborhood.

For non-ultrarunners, this means we need to avoid drastically ramping up either overall mileage or intensity. Though we may now have time and energy to train more or we may be so stressed out that we feel compelled to run farther and harder to burn it off, we need to save our immune system for what could be its most formidable competitor, COVID-19.

Consistent, moderate training to which the body is already accustomed will keep the body’s immune system working well, hopefully keep us healthy, and lower the community burden that may still be ahead of us.

Secondly, moderate running will also keep the orthopedic system balanced. With most orthopedic treatment facilities either limited or shuttered, now is the worst of all times to incur a running injury.

Lastly, we need to avoid long and especially remote trail and wilderness outings because of the potential for random catastrophe via a bad fall, car accident, or getting lost. With medical infrastructure on edge, we should aim to minimize any potential burden on the system.

In summary, keep your running efforts moderate in order to:

  • Stay healthy;
  • Stay uninjured; and
  • Stay clear of the medical system.

This is just a start, and you’ll additionally need to stay on top of your local regulations on public exercise.

Run in Alone or in Pairs (Unless It’s With Your Quarantine Family)

Social-distancing orders are the norm around the world right now. Consensus recommendations are to maintain at least a six-foot distance between community members. This applies to anyone in the community, except those with whom you are currently sheltering.

In order to comply with these recommendations, avoid running in groups larger than two, for two reasons. First, it is logistically challenging to maintain six feet of distance on standard sidewalks and trails. Second, avoiding airborne droplet contamination may become more challenging with heavy exertion and the aerodynamics of moving through the air. Runners exhale significant vapor loads that tend to trail in a long airstream behind them. Running alone or in pairs better allows you to avoid front-to-back running  and its potential breath-vapor exposure.

Just this past week, a couple interesting pieces came to light that track how breath vapors travel in both static (standing and sitting) and dynamic (walking and running) environments. A white paper on vapor dynamics during walking and running got a lot of press, providing good scientific backing for promoting significantly farther distancing–up to 10 meters (33 feet)–when running directly behind someone to help avoid their breathing ‘wake zone.’ For a deeper dive into air dynamics, this fascinating study provides a compelling visual of human-breath vapors and how they interact in various environments. And while it is important to note that all this work is emergent, quality efforts like these should have us doubling down on distancing precautions and mask-wearing, let alone running behind others.

The only safe exception to these rules is if you’re running with your quarantine family, the people with whom you’re sheltering. Keep this in mind when passing judgment on recreators you encounter along the way.

Diversify Your Training with Mobility and Strength

Since both training and racing is relatively limited, now is the time to diversify our training by investing in either mobility and/or strength. This may include:

Many furloughed physical therapists, personal trainers, and yoga instructors now have online offerings. Support those folks and diversify your health in the process.

Check Your Running Form

How’s your running stride doing? Without a major event or large training load burdening your running, now is an ideal time to look toward more quality, efficient running. If you work with a coach, ask them to help you optimize your running-stride efficiency. Also consider studying stride-efficiency concepts. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a home treadmill, a simple mirror will tell you a lot. Beyond that, there are some valuable stride-coaching services out there that can help pinpoint areas of improvement, based on your training goals and injury history. (Conflict-of-interest note, I offer one of the few online video running analysis services.)

Either way, looking inward and shoring up the weaknesses is a great way to use this time!

Conclusion

Life is limited during a pandemic defense or some other life-altering event. Though limited, running or whatever exercise we can do still offers the peace, freedom, thrill, and vitality that is always has. Cherish and protect what may be your most precious resource through prudent running and training practices, so that our futures can once again be far and wild.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How has your running changed since the COVID-19 crisis started? How have you found a new exercise routine within it?
  • What modifications have you made to your exercise for the express purpose of better protecting your community and avoiding the second-order issues your running could cause?
  • Have you learned anything new about yourself and your running motivations because of these changes?

Reference

Towards aerodynamically equivalent COVID19 1.5 m social distancing for walking and running B. Blocken 1,2, F. Malizia 2 , T. van Druenen 1 , T. Marchal 3 Corresponding author: b.j.e.blocken@tue.nl 1 Building Physics and Services, Department of the Built Environment, Eindhoven University of Technology, P.O. box 513, 5600 MB Eindhoven, the Netherlands 2 Building Physics Section, Department of Civil Engineering, KU Leuven, Kasteelpark Arenberg 40 – bus 2447, 3001 Leuven, Belgium 3 Ansys Belgium S.A., Centre d’Affaires “Les Collines de Wavre”, Avenue Pasteur 4, 1300, Wavre, Belgium

Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 11 comments

  1. Oliver

    This is a great post. I didn‘t know anything about vapor dynamics. The question is, does the virus survive and remain infectious in the air stream. At my place, we are allowed to do anything outside as long as we keep moving and we‘re not with more than one more person outside our family, all while keeping a distance of 1.5 metres. At my place, I can get outside my house and run without encountering hardly anyone. Hardly anyone because there are spots where you run into quite a few people. Authorities had to close some hot spots due to the affluence. Outside of these, some people can‘t be bothered to walk behind each other instead of next to each other, so this makes it hard at times to keep the distance. I reduced my mileage in the past few weeks since I‘ve learned about all the cancelled races. I managed to keep some minor upper respiratory tract infections at bay by adding some extra rest days. Now, I am ramping up my mileage again, slowly. Of course, as you point out, now is not the time to get injured or have an accident, so no technical downhills or outdoor cycling (just Zwifting indoors to complement my running.)

    1. Joe Uhan

      Oliver-

      Thanks for the comment.

      To your question, “Does the virus survive”, an answer: “no idea”

      This is a time of innumerable and (for now, mostly) unanswereable questions. So with such uncertainty, safety/prudence is the default. Thus, the logic of “don’t run behind someone’s flow” is pretty sound and worth following.

      Good luck with your running adjustments!

  2. Ric Moxley

    Great article, great suggestions.

    One addition: Since I have found it nearly impossible to keep the 6 foot distance when passing others on singletrack trails around here (Idyllwild California), I have opted for running on dirt roads. If you live in or near the mountains, there are probably many of these “fire roads,” which have little or no vehicular traffic, little or no foot traffic, and plenty of width to keep your social distance if you do find another runner or walker out there. Sure: fire roads typically lack the technical challenge of a good single track trail, but it’s dirt underfoot at least. And in the mountains, it’s dirt with lots of elevation! :)

    1. Joe Uhan

      Outstanding recommendation, Ric. It IS super-tough to run on any non-road right now — often a combination of too many people on too small of a surface. Dirt/forest roads are a great alternative

  3. Mary Jane

    I love this article. It’s tough to accept some of these adjustments and I like the call for moderation this article brings. I had trained to run 46 miles on my 46 birthday and postponed it for the reasons you mentioned (poss stress on body/immune system, health care, etc). I’m using this time to run with my nieces and nephews- their distance and pace- as we’re in shutdown and I’m with them. Really enjoying this time with them taking turns on the treadmill, doing yoga or running a few miles outside…

    1. AH

      Thanks for posting this, Mary Jane. My 30th birthday is on Saturday and I’ve been planning to run 30 miles on that day for quite a long time now. However, I’ve been struggling with the same things you are and my long runs are only around 18 miles right now. It’s a lot of repetition of the paved roads near my city home. I feel really connected to you to see someone faced with a similar decision to mine. I’m considering breaking my run into two shorter 15 milers so I can stay closer to home. I wonder if postponing it is the safer and more responsible thing to do.

  4. Albert

    I run by myself 99.9% of the time, so no adjustment for me. I get a bit irritated when I see people still doing group runs, and I think come on. You can do without group runs for a bit. It’s not about you, but where you go and to whom you spread the virus. Just play the game and let’s get through this.

  5. Joe Uhan

    One other thought – that’s a combination of personal safety and courtesy (especially from runners to non-runners):

    wear a face covering…but only cover it when approaching/passing others.

    Such coverings are annoying even in the coldest weather: torturous in warm conditions. But pulling over for 30-60s is tolerable and is a good show of effort to keep vapor contained on shared spaces.

  6. Paul Flanders

    I have been doing some runs around the perimeter of a local mall parking lot 1.5 miles per lap and no others in sight

  7. Stephen Patterson

    I have started to run late in the evening, 8:30-11 pm seems to be reasonable and not overly late. it’s serene, peaceful and the bonus of listening to a local owl hoot in the nearby woods when it is still. The trails are all closed here, but one can be reasonably close to the forest while running the sidewalk at night in my neighbourhood…..late evening is awesome. In daylight, I see occasional runners, and many families and walkers in general, so I also do any daytime run in the rain and wind, not infrequent where I live lol. Running in inclement weather is invigorating, and predictably quiet. There are always alternatives regardless of where one lives.

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