As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the world, scientists and researchers are scrambling to learn more about the virus and how it’s transmitted. In the meantime, unless you’re an essential worker, you’re probably under a lockdown or social distance order of some kind, which means you’re supposed to stay indoors and avoid other people as much as possible.
For runners, this poses a frustrating challenge. How do you fit your regular exercise in? Is outdoor running simply too much of a health risk? No doubt you’ve heard a variety of different takes on the topic. To get some answers, we spoke with three different medical professionals for their take on some of the biggest running questions. A major takeaway: It’s all about what makes you and others feel safe.
Is running outside even safe right now? What if I’m at high risk?
The short answer is “yes,” but it really comes down to what you’re comfortable with. “Running outside at this time is very safe,” asserts Steven E. Mayer, M.D., sports medicine physician at the Northwestern Medicine Running Medicine Clinic in Warrenville, Illinois. “In fact, being outside is safer than being inside, as long as you are continuing to social distance.”
A new study out of China (which is in preprint and has yet to be peer reviewed) looked at 318 COVID-19 outbreaks with three or more cases of infection. The researchers determined that all of these outbreaks happened in indoor venues. If you think about it, this makes sense: air flows more freely outdoors than inside a building.
If you’re at high risk for developing serious illness from COVID-19, Dr. Mayer recommends being even more diligent about your running game plan. “Certainly, this does not mean you cannot run outside, but you will want to make sure you avoid people and do not touch anything outside,” he says. Isolated areas are a great option (if you have access to them). If you live in a busy city, try to run in less crowded areas during off-peak hours.
Should I wear a mask? What about gloves?
It depends on where you’re running and if you’ll have to touch anything. As of April 13, the CDC is recommending that people wear cloth face coverings in places where social distancing is difficult to maintain. So, if you’re going for a run in your quiet suburb, or a 6 A.M. jaunt through your local park, it probably won’t be hard to stay six feet from other people.
If you live somewhere like New York or Chicago, and you tend to run in crowded places at busy times, you might consider getting a face covering. This can help protect you from infection, but equally important, it will make those around you feel more at ease. You’ll need something breathable, so try a neck gaiter that’s designed for runners (they’re usually used to protect your face from cold wind in the winter, or for sun protection in the summer). You could also try a cotton bandana.
Gloves are probably only necessary if you know you’ll have to touch a public surface. “In parks, people might need to use the bathroom, so it is advisable to wear gloves and make sure once you have touched any surfaces to discard the gloves,” says Rashid Chotani, M.D., Vice President for Medical Affairs at CareLife Medical in Fairfax, Virginia. If you use cotton gloves, make sure to wash them before using them again to avoid spreading germs around. If you use latex gloves, you can throw them away after one use. And if you don’t have any gloves (they’re in short supply these days), the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer after you touch public surfaces.
Do I need to stay more than six feet apart from other runners?
You might have seen that Belgian study that went viral–you know, the one that urges runners to stay at least 13 to 16 feet behind other runners? The study authors claimed that airborne particles travel differently when a person is in motion, so you’re in danger of running “through” someone’s respiratory droplets even if you’re running six feet behind them.
It’s a scary claim, but it’s also a controversial one. The study was posted without the backing of a peer-reviewed journal, and some experts have pushed back against its core hypothesis. Dr. Mayer explains that since the study is based on a computer-simulated model, it represents a hypothetical scenario. “There is no epidemiological data to suggest that endurance athletes are spreading the disease any more than others in the population,” he notes.
That said, you really can’t be too cautious. Earl Kilbride, M.D., is a sports medicine specialist at Texas Orthopedics in Austin, Texas, and he also happens to be an avid runner. Dr. Kilbride points out that in Austin, the Parks and Recreation Department has converted city trails to a “one-way traffic” model–a decision he agrees with. One-way running traffic might not be possible in your area, in which case, just do the best you can to stay at a distance from others.
Should I hold my breath when I pass someone?
“I don’t think runners need to do this, but walkers are different,” Dr. Kilbride says. “I would recommend masking as opposed to holding your breath.” (Plus, mask-wearing when walking, as opposed to running, is less likely to restrict your ability to breathe.) Dr. Mayer agrees that holding your breath when running is optional. “You can hold your breath when you pass somebody, but the risk is low [for COVID-19 transmission] as long as you are keeping your distance.”
Should I wash my clothes immediately afterwards?
Again, not a bad idea, but it’s really up to you. Dr. Kilbride says it’s smart to wash your clothes and shower after running if you’re worried you might have been exposed or gotten too close to other people. Dr. Chotani and Dr. Mayer agree. “Washing your hands and changing your clothes immediately after your run is a good idea,” Dr. Mayer says. “I do not feel that it is necessarily high risk, but common sense would indicate that doing so would be smart.” The CDC notes that while COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets, there is evidence that it can last for an unknown period of time on many different materials. Until more is known about the virus’ ability to live on fabric, post-workout laundry is a good way of playing it safe.
Should I leave my shoes outside the door?
Dr. Kilbride always does this after his runs! It’s another precaution that may help you feel safer. Dr. Chotani also recommends it. Dr. Mayer says this is only really necessary if you’re worried you came into contact with the virus during your run. “You could consider wiping [shoes] down,” he says. “There is certainly nothing wrong with keeping them outside or in the garage.”
It’s important to keep in mind that every runner’s situation will be different. City dwellers encounter the most obvious challenges. If you live in a small town or rural area, you probably have an easier time socially distancing during your runs. Be smart, be cautious, and take whatever precautions you need to feel safe when you’re outdoors–whether or not you’re running.