Taking a run outdoors during a pandemic can be a saving grace for your mental health. In fact, research has shown that regular exercise may reduce the risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome, a major cause of death in patients with the COVID-19 virus. However, during a time when we’re all supposed to stay inside, it might seem ironic that there are more people now, more than ever, flooding parks and outdoor spaces to run.
First off, is it safe to run outside right now?
Yes, if the appropriate measures are taken to ensure safety. The best plan for running right now is to go out for a solo run, in non-crowded areas. You should time your run for when you know the route will be less crowded, especially in a place like Manhattan where crowds seem to be impossible to avoid in our favorite parks. While running solo, it’s important to still maintain at least six feet of distance from others. Generally speaking, germs dissipate very quickly outdoors, however, that doesn’t mean you should abandon social distancing orders.
How do you prepare yourself to run outdoors?
CDC guidelines recommend “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” If you’re running solo in an area where you won’t encounter others, it’s likely not necessary. But, if you’re running in a crowded area which is likely in Manhattan, NY, it’s a precaution you should take. While wearing a formal face mask may be uncomfortable, a secondary option is to wear a Buff gaiter, which is a tube of fabric that runners wear on their necks for extra warmth but might be more comfortable due to its sweat wicking capability. Yes, face masks are annoying when you’re breathing heavy while running. But, you should still wear them to prevent spreading the infection to other people and avoiding inhalation from the infected to yourself.
Runners tend to demarcate time by race seasons. So, how do you continue to meet your goals as a runner, regardless of the level you are used to training at? The key is to stay in shape across the physical spectrum! If the fall race season materializes, you can still be ready. It may not be PR ready, however, you can still pick up a race in a healthy manner. Now is NOT the time to push your body to the limit and train like you want to run a PR. Running will create a stress-response, which in normal times is good for your health and longevity, but is a dangerous response right now because it could affect your body's ability to handle infection. Try not to place anxiety or stress around hitting a certain mileage or pace. Ask yourself after you complete a run; are you feeling energized or depleted? Running should feel restorative right now during a time of high stress.
So what is the appropriate running prescription right now?
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity and 2 sessions per week of strength training on separate days to help your immune system keep viruses at bay.
For seasoned runners I recommend:
3-4x/week of running for a maximum duration of 60 minutes/run.
2x/week of strength training, with at least 24 hours in between a run and strength session so that you can run on fresh legs.
Remember! Running more than 60 minutes, at an intensity > 75% of your personal max intensity, could in the short term weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to sickness. So, for right now, it might not be the best decision to go for those long, intense runs.
What if you are new to running? I recommend starting with an alternating run/walk combination:
2-3x/week of running, starting with 1:1 ratio of run to walk. Progress one level per week until you reach the goal that you set for yourself.
Stay within that 60 minute window, however, if you are only able to go for 10 minutes at first- that’s ok! It’s important to be patient and kind to your body right now and build up in a way that feels right to you.
For all levels of runners, while we are battling a pandemic; keep yourself at a conversational pace to avoid overstressing the system. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s simple! You should be able to talk comfortably throughout the duration of your run.
Rest days!! Your “rest days” should be restorative and can include alternative exercise such as yoga, pilates, walking, stretching/mobility, OR complete rest if that is what you need. At minimum, I recommend 1-2 rest days. It can be tempting to pick up running 7x/week while there is more free time than usual, however, it’s crucial to avoid acute or overuse injuries to stay healthy right now.
Don’t forget sleep! It is important to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night for both physical and psychological recovery.
If you are sick with any cold or flu symptoms or at-risk of spreading the virus, you shouldn’t go out for a run. Normally, the general rule of thumb is if it is above the neck, run through it. Not in these times! Err on the side of caution. The bigger concern is spreading it to those who are at high risk, such as the elderly or immunocompromised.
Now is the time to focus on making yourself a better runner. How?
Focus on your limitations as a runner. Not sure what they are? Consult a Physical Therapist! A Physical Therapist can provide a detailed musculoskeletal evaluation which will include a running analysis to identify any biomechanical faults. Common areas that are important to work on to improve quality and longevity as a runner is single leg stability, core strength, hip strength (especially the gluts!), and mobility. A Physical Therapist can provide a creative plan of care addressing your personal limitations to compliment you as a runner. You can make yourself bulletproof toward injury from running by focusing on your limitations right now, especially if you are looking to be fall race season ready or are brand new to running!