With so many people hitting the pavement, a few questions come to mind, such as: Should you wear a mask when you run? When should you stretch? How do you ward off any potential injuries?
The Washington Post spoke with experts in airborne disease transmission, doctors who oversee running clinics and coaches who train athletes for races to get advice for those new, or returning, to running.
Keep your distance and be mindful of others
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people maintain at least six feet of distance, about two arms’ lengths, from those around you, but six feet may not be enough, some experts said.
Linsey Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses travel through the air, told The Post that runners should try to keep 10 feet between them and other runners or walkers, if not more.
“Six feet isn’t some magic boundary beyond which there’s zero risk,” Marr said over the phone. “The farther you are away, the better.”
The World Health Organization reports that the virus that causes covid-19 can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending droplets into the air that eventually fall to the ground. But a growing number of studies suggest that smaller particles containing the virus can remain suspended in air and, in certain environments, travel farther than just six feet. The research is one part of a larger scientific debate about how the novel coronavirus can spread from person to person.
“To me, 10 feet is safer,” said Marr, who’s a runner herself. Marr said 10 feet gives some wiggle room if you need to bend the rule in a tight situation.
There’s a concern that with every labored breath, runners who have the virus release infectious particles into the air around them. If you’re passing someone every minute during a run, Marr recommended wearing a face mask of tightly woven fabric that fits close to your face, such as a layered Buff around your neck.
You’re going to want to also avoid running in a group. And, when you do move past someone in front of you, pass the person quickly, Marr said. Try to give the other person plenty of space. You don’t want to draft behind other runners, taking in the air they’re exhaling.
Of course, your chances of contracting the virus outside are generally “much, much lower” than inside a room with poor ventilation, Marr said. Any breath, cough or sneeze from someone infected with the virus could be scattered by the wind.
“Your risk is going to depend on how much virus you might be exposed to,” Marr said, “so that’s why I’ve been saying don’t linger right in front of or right behind someone else.”
These are anxious times. The moments outside are a way to unwind and unplug from news of the pandemic. No matter what degree of social distancing you’re comfortable with, others may not feel the same way.
Conroy Zien, a running coach in Maryland, said the last thing he wants is for runners to get a bad reputation by hogging sidewalks and trails. In his eyes, every runner is an ambassador of the sport, and you should pay attention to, say, the parent walking with a stroller.
“Get out of the way. Move out of the way,” Zien said. “Make it obvious that you are allowing them their appropriate social distance.”
Ease back into it
If you’re just getting into running, the most important step is to start slow. Bob Wilder, the director of the University of Virginia’s Runner’s Clinic, said he recommends first-time runners start with a walk-run program, adding more running every week, with one minute of walking and another of running. The key is to not go headfirst into a hard, long running schedule, Wilder told The Post.
“You don’t want to jump into a training program that one of your friends have been doing for years,” he added.
Zien has been coaching first-time marathon runners since 2012 for the Montgomery County Road Runners, a club based in suburban Maryland. Zien told The Post that the first goal for any runner is to stay healthy and injury-free. Try not to push yourself too hard at the start.
“Don’t go from zero to 100 overnight,” Zien said over the phone, adding that you shouldn’t leap from “the couch to a marathon.” Start with smaller goals (and races). Any injury will only set you back.
Consider that same mantra when you start any run, short or long. Begin with a warm-up walk or jog, and then pick up the pace over time, Wilder said. You don’t need to stretch right before you run, but take some time to stretch your muscles after a workout; even later in the day is fine.
Jerry Alexander, the coach for both the Georgetown and Northern Virginia running clubs, told The Post that new runners don’t need to overthink their post-workout stretches. Focus on your hamstrings, quads and calves, using simple stretches from grade school, with a staircase or the side of a wall.
“The best thing you can do for injury prevention is to stretch,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be the latest cutting-edge techniques.”
Record how much you run, and add a bit more every week
Running is a contact sport, but instead of you vs. a person, it’s you vs. the ground, said Jason Fitzgerald, a running coach who runs a training blog and podcast to help other athletes in the sport. Every step puts pressure on your joints and knees.
“It’s really easy to get injured with running, and I don’t think a lot of people truly appreciate that,” Fitzgerald told The Post. You should keep some record of how much you’re running every week — either in a notebook or with an app.
If you find yourself adding more mileage week to week during the pandemic, slow down your pace, and allow your body to adjust to the stress on your legs, Fitzgerald said. After a long weekend run, take one or two days of rest to allow your body to recuperate.
Running isn’t about linear progression, where you’re going farther every time you hit a trail. You can’t run hard every day, and you shouldn’t to protect from injuries, Alexander said. Only take one day a week, at most, to push yourself until you’re completely out of breath.
“The best runner in the world does not run hard every day,” Alexander said. “You just really want to listen to your body.”
Fitzgerald recommends putting together a plan, detailing how you’re progressively adding mileage, a little at a time. Wilder tells patients at his UVA clinic to increase their total mileage by only 10 percent every week.
Shin splints are a sign that “you jumped into things a little too quickly,” Wilder said, and they can actually be caused by a bad pair of shoes. Wilder told The Post that he always asks patients at the clinic: What are you running in?
Get a good pair of shoes
The shoes you wear to mow the lawn or for a trip to Home Depot probably are not a good pair to start regularly running in. And, at the clinic, Wilder recommends replacing a pair of running shoes after roughly 400 miles.
“Shoes are rarely looking worn out at that time but usually have lost a significant amount of their shock-absorbing and stability capacity,” Wilder said.
Where you run, how you run, your foot type and your personal goals in the sport will all influence what type of shoes you should invest in. Try to get your shoes from a running shop, where someone can take into consideration all the factors at play. Even during stay-at-home orders, some running stores are offering consultations online to help runners find their next pair.
“There’s a lot more involved in shoe selection than just going to the store and picking one off the shelf,” Zien told The Post. “Don’t be fooled by the looks, by the flashy colors or anything.”