Running and COVID-19 in 2020: A Guide to this Year’s Race Season

This information was up to date as of March 21st, 2020 in the Canadian context. PS that big May race has now been deferred until the fall.

I wanted to do this post then I didn’t, then I did again, so here we are. For runners the prospect of an entire race season being canceled is a really big deal. It’s not cool to say that because there are way more serious things happening right now. But it’s on my mind and I bet it’s on yours too. It even leaked into the end of a post I wrote about mistakes runners make in half training last week. So here’s my advice from a biologist and a runner about how I’m approaching running in 2020 at least. Take it for what it is but I would say it’s pretty sound, balanced advice for most of us out there.

For some context here we are as I am writing this. I’m in Canada in the last province to confirm 20 cases of the virus. Our country and our province is taking a heavy hand but a reasonable one to flatten the curve. We are to practice social distancing, daycares are closing as are schools for 3 weeks. Restaurants are doing take out only and we are to self isolate if returning to the country or feeling symptoms for 14 days. Social gatherings of 50 or more are to be avoided. Events are being canceled left and right, though not my big May race yet, and people are panic shopping. All of that is good advice to follow and I will but what does that mean for running?

We all want to be like South Korea and well China and keep our curves as flat as possible. So far Canada has only had 8 deaths and is not on this chart yet. We will be though so it’s up to us to decide how it goes from there.

For us right now no one is sick or has traveled. We could afford to take two weeks off if need be and we could probably even still work given we are working on an empty house at the moment. That’s a F-ing lucky position to be in, one that’s not always true for us either. With a bit more planning than we are used to at this point we could even have supplies delivered. Runners tend to be a pretty privileged group overall so remember that when you’re throwing shade at someone else’s choices. As a runner I haven’t booked any big races yet or really started training for my season but… I’ve been thinking about it enough that this PROBABLY was going to be the year I attempted my first marathon. However I wasn’t fully committed mentally and I maybe still can. So this is what I’m doing for now and why that is. If some of it makes sense to you then feel free to steal liberally.

Should you even run?

Overall I’m going to say yes, but read on because it’s a qualified yes. No matter the runner you are old, young, with a preexisting condition or not keeping active and healthy will help you if you do get infected. In a lot of places and for a lot of people that might happen. But chances are if your first thought is about keeping running you’re probably one of the people that will have relatively mild symptoms. However you DO HAVE TO modify your behavior.

Right now the responsible thing to do is to run outside and by yourself in more isolated areas. I don’t mean unsafe or only rural areas but rather in places where it will be easy to maintain a 2m (6.5 ft) distance from others. For me there is a 97% chance I won’t see another pedestrian on my rural country road but even in my sister’s close to the city dense suburb it would be possible to run there too and maintain that rule. The streets are all boulavarded and avoiding the relatively few pedestrians is pretty easy. Though in a few places I might cross the road to stay clear of crowded bus stops. It’s my old hood too! Changing your time of day might even be enough. I would not be running on busy narrow downtown streets right now to protect you, others and generally appear responsible to others. Now is not the time to run with a club, a friend or at a race.

I would avoid the gym, wash my hands when I return and not-risk it if I personally could use the #highriskCOVID hashtag or had to interact with anybody that could. But what if you are told to self-isolate at home but you are feeling well or if you interact with someone high risk? In that case I would follow government regulations and make sure that if I did run I would be reasonably sure I would not interact with anyone. If the government say no then don’t go! Personally I would shift to the trail where there is a less than 1% chance I would see anyone else and tell neighbors I might bump into “I can’t talk today” from a distance even if I had to be rude. I can apologize later. So even if you have to drive to run under those conditions (use pay at the pump please) I think that’s the only option. If you can’t be pretty friggin’ sure you won’t bump into someone I wouldn’t risk it.

Source: Government of Canada

We all run from time to time when we feel unwell. Even the mild symptoms of COVID should keep you out of your sneakers since it’s a chest cold. But if you have any symptoms at all skip it you can always run later. Despite what you think you don’t lose fitness as fast as most of us fear, check out the science behind that here. If you are feeling unwell it’s best to assume it’s COVID that is making you sick. As such the possibility of escalating symptoms is a real concern and running while unwell isn’t a good reason to need a ventilator that someone else could have used. Take it easy and if you must do gentle workouts from YouTube videos like yoga at home while you recover. In the meantime get lots of sleep and water to help you get better sooner.

When you feel better, if you do get sick return to running after well after you feel like you could. This virus is a prime candidate for post infection pneumonias and pericarditis a usually harmless swelling around the heart. Anytime you have a viral infection inflammation around the heart afterward can happen but its more likely if you exercise vigorously too soon. I’ve experienced it and it is unsettling to say the least. This is not the time to have to show up to urgent care for an ECG when recourses could be better used elsewhere. On the day you feel like returning to running don’t and wait three more days. Even then take it very easy upon your return or even make your first few runs back walks.

How to plan for race season

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. So far I have three races booked this year one 15k in late may (which I want to crush and train for) and two less serious 5k’s in June. I think all three of these races will end up being canceled, go virtual or be deferred to next year at this point. It was mostly my plan to then run a half in July and probably train for my first full at the beginning of October. While I very well might still do that I’m way more flexible at this point about that now. If it doesn’t work out I think this year will just be multiple halfs for the first time ever. That’s a good enough goal for me. There are a few fall marathons on my radar just in case but it’s important to be realistic, like some places it might be hard to find late accommodations. I figure by the end of July I’ll have a better idea of what’s going on and I can decide then.

A lot of the world majors like Boston and London have been moved to the fall which is probably a good strategy for your major too. Look to back end load your season but don’t get really attached. If you’re looking to do something really big for the first time this year it might not be the year for that. Things like iron mans, even olympic triathlons and to a lesser extent marathons are few and far between depending on where you live. Think really hard about training for something you absolutely have to travel for. This might be a good year to keep your races closer to home. A few years ago for example I looked around for another olympic to do after my first one moved and there were none to be found. That year I decided to do all the fun faces near me that training always kept me from doing. This year I would really look for a race later in the season, and a back up later and another back up later than that. There is almost always a 10k or a half every weekend somewhere local but after that think long and hard. Avoid putting out lots of cash on race plans this year. Remember almost all runners have FOMO and those fall races that are on will fill up fast.

What if your race is canceled?

You do get to be sad but you also have to realize it’s for the greater good. Try your best to only complain to other running people who get it. People in long term care centers have already spent 50th anniversaries apart, people will have lost jobs and by the time the dust settles I’m sure someone will lose their home because they were unable to work, some people even died. Sure you might have lost some money but you can always do that half iron next year. Plus for most of us we got to see the writing on the wall pretty early in the season so not a whole lot of effort was lost. Even if it was lost you’re now totally ready for beach season way ahead of schedule. But like me you might be looking at moving your race further down the line. Here’s a good way to do that.

You may want to enter into a sort of holding pattern to maintain fitness and just hang out there until you find a race that fits. One good way to do that is to complete your training plan up until two weeks before peak week. Then take that week, week 3 and the week half way in between and just keep doing them, over and over. So for a 12 week plan with a two week taper that would be week 3, week 5 (or 6) and week 8. Once you find a race date after you get to that most intense week just keep working the original plan through peak week and the taper phase. If you’ve past that point already just start this rotation I guess for now indefinitely or until the delayed date for your race. This should keep I you in close to race shape and let you get to your race day within about 30 days notice. It also minimizes your injury risk from overtraining. If you’re worried that isn’t enough time repeat the week before peak week and then it’s about 2.5 weeks out from race day all summer long.

I’m guessing a lot of races will end up either delaying or going virtual which is cool really. I know some of us might prefer a delay over this option but it’s not always possible to book the security, route and logistics into the future potentially paying again and maybe losing that date too. I do really feel for the people who run those shiny for profit races. They have collected money, some of which they have spent on the race and they must be freaking out about potentially having to cancel right now. So if you’re cool not deferring to next year then take them up on that virtual option. Just say your race is outright canceled but you don’t want to let go there is another option. That option is paying for a separate online virtual option, honestly I’m thinking about it for that 15k in May to keep me on track just in case. So far this is the best option I’ve found. Plus the coffee medal is super cute right?

A word of caution about the virtual option though… Only do it if you are completely sure you can do your virtual race safely. That might mean extra planning or support from friends or family. You might not realize it but those race fees are giving you a lot of support on your big day. Sure that’s the water station and any fuel they give out but it’s more than that. That number you wear, all those other runners and all those volunteers mean there are eyes on you the whole time. Unless it’s a distance you are totally comfortable with don’t try to go it alone. You could stash a few frozen water bottles and gels along the way or you could recruit a family member or friend to meet you at certain points along the way. I tend to favor that option. For something like a triathlon the idea of you going it alone makes me really, really nervous. Make sure you stay safe and bring a phone at least even though it’s technically against the rules. If you can’t do it safely don’t do it at all!

Moving past COVID

We really don’t know how long this will last at this point. Hopefully we’ll all do a good job of social distancing now and it will seem like it was all for nothing since it will pass relatively quickly. That doesn’t mean all this worry was a waste it means it worked. Remember right now you are protecting others even if you are pretty sure you’ll be fine. Given all the shopping we did last week there is no reason for most of us to leave the house right? Corona viruses in general really tend to be a winter phenomenon even more so than influenza but we don’t know for sure how this one will act yet. That means it may get way better as spring comes, another reason to flatten the curve now, and an early spring would really help with that. If it does die down in the summer that could be the end of it or COVID-19 could come back with a vengeance this fall. 

Things are up in the air right now, running things, racing things AND serious life things. It’s okay to be sad about this race season. I mean I am a little and it hasn’t even started yet and nothing for me has even been officially canceled yet. If your race isn’t canceled and you decide to do it think if you are willing or able to self-isolate for two weeks if a single person there is diagnosed after the fact. Your race season can always take a left turn. You could have gotten injured, someone in your family might have gotten really sick otherwise or you might have had a traffic accident too. Fun fact I did two weeks before my biggest challenge to date, a pretty big one, she wrote off her car when she rear ended me though I didn’t share that at the time. We were okay and my very first thought was about my race after it happened. My neck was so sore for three days after and I had to not work for one of those days. I did improve and I did my race but it totally could have gone another way after 5 months of training. The point is anything can happen and even though it might feel like it a little bit, this isn’t actually happening to you. Everyone has stuff they’re dealing with right now and if you’re like me and your race season is one of your biggest concerns, then count yourself lucky because that’s a pretty privileged place to be. After all you can still run even if you can’t race!

Remember to take care of those close to you if you can! Has your race been canceled this year? How are you dealing with this year’s race season? Stay safe, read a book (they have them about running too) and leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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