Can I Run Outside During A Pandemic?

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Woman in medical mask is jogging outdoors
Scary Mommy and Vadym Pastukh/Getty

I started running when my husband was diagnosed with a cancer for which survival was measured in months, not years. I ran to relieve the stress of every unknown that plagued us before, during, and after each doctor’s appointment. And I ran to calm the chaos in my head so I could find the space to be the wife and caretaker my husband needed, to be the mother my children needed.

After he died, I kept running. I ran a half-marathon because I needed to prove to myself that I could do something I thought I’d never be able to do. And I ran to settle the uncertainty of each new day I faced as a young widow.

But I remain a recreational runner. I’m not fast. My gait is too short and I tend to walk when my legs get tired, rather than push myself to build endurance. I run only for the joy of being outside, having the chance to breathe deeply, and relieving the stress that comes with real life.

When the governor of my state enacted a stay-at-home order in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, running was allowed. The stay-at-home order meant going out only for essential errands, including trips to the grocery store or pharmacy—but also allowed for outdoor activities like walking, running, or hiking, as long as proper social distancing measures were followed.

So I kept up my runs. I ran for all the reasons I’d started running—to calm the chaos in my head so I could find the space to be the mother my children needed, to settle the uncertainty of each new day, and for another reason. I ran because running was the only activity allowed outside the four walls of my house, and it was keeping me somewhat grounded.

And I’m not alone. I’ve seen more runners race past my house in the last four weeks than I’ve seen in the last few years. It seems we (a collective, global we) are all looking for a way to relieve stress and find a little space to breathe outside the confines of our four walls.

But now the rules have changed. The governor in my state is requiring face masks in grocery stores. The CDC is recommending everyone wear masks outside of their homes. Running still feels crucial to my mental health, but now when I’m outside I don’t know whether I’m making a responsible choice. Am I keeping myself and others around me safe? And what are the dos, don’ts, and need-to-knows of running during a pandemic?

Is Running Outside Safe?

The short answer: yes. With a few caveats.

First, what does the word “safe” mean in this context? Safe means safe for your personal risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the risk that you may unknowingly transmit the virus to another person, since studies have shown that as many as 50% of people infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic.

Running outside, alone, in a non-crowded area is safe, for you and others. The risk of infection to you from running outdoors is low. The risk to others remains low as long as proper social distancing is followed. But for runners, the standard six feet rule may not be enough. Linsey Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech with an expertise in airborne disease transmission, told NPR that because runners are breathing harder, they may release more virus into the air. On the other hand, because they’re moving faster, they’re moving the air around them faster and potentially diluting the virus. We just don’t know. And because we don’t know, the safest way to protect yourself and those around you is to keep a lot of distance between yourself and anyone not in your household.

And if you’re sick—showing any signs of infection like cough or fever—stay home. Take the time to rest and heal. The idea that you can “sweat out your sickness” is a myth, anyway.

Also, don’t forget that the rules of running still apply, even in a pandemic. Look both ways before you cross the street (despite the decrease in traffic), run with ID tucked away somewhere, and pay attention to your surroundings.

Should I Wear A Mask While Running?

The short answer: it depends.

The CDC now recommends everyone wear a mask out in public. If you live in a more crowded area, you should wear a mask. Chances are, you’ll encounter someone while running, and it may be difficult to negotiate your space to keep the minimum 6 feet of distance between you and anyone who does not live in your house. On the other hand, if you live in a more rural area, and the only living things you’ll see are the rabbits and deer scampering through the trees, you’re probably safe to run without a mask.

Although, some experts suggest wearing a mask anytime you’re outside your home.

Without a hard and fast rule on masks, the choice whether to wear a mask or not comes down to personal comfort levels, judgment, and conscience.

What If I Can’t Run Outside?

If you’re a runner but you can’t run outside because despite stay-at-home orders the sidewalks are too crowded with others out on essential errands, or you’re in an at-risk group and the risk of exposure is simply too high, or you’re in a city like Paris, which has banned outdoor exercise between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., you’re not out of luck.

Humans are nothing if not resilient and creative when they put their minds to it. One athlete in England created a marathon for himself in his backyard, while other runners are getting in their miles running up and down building stairwells.

The pandemic has also seen the rise of the virtual race. Virtual races created to replace those that were canceled due to the virus and others, like Quarantine Backyard Ultra, which were created in response to pandemic, allow runners to track and log miles however they can—and some even offer extra perks like leaderboards and medals.

There’s a lot that we as a global community still don’t know about COVID-19. We know only that in order to stop the spread, we all have to change the way we live and work. And we all have to make choices that are safe for ourselves and for those around us.

For me, that means finding a way to run whether in the quiet sunrise hours before the rest of the world wakes up or in small circles around my yard (though maybe not a whole marathon). Because right now, anything that gives me a little stability, a little time to breathe without the fear of the unknown weighing me down, is important.

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