• Dr Grace Roberts

How to run safely in a pandemic

Updated: Apr 1

As both a runner and a virologist I thought I’d give my advice about running in our current situation, and how to do so as safely as possible.

At the time of writing, we’re still allowed to go outside once a day to exercise in the UK – general rules are:

  • Exercise should start at your front door - travelling for exercise is deemed non-essential and is currently forbidden

  • Exercise should be done alone, or with people you already live with

  • At present, there is no defined time limit to how long you can exercise for, but in general, it is best to stick to your normal routine

  • If you are classed as a high risk individual, please follow NHS guidelines and stay at home - I know it's not the same as running but there are lots of exercises you can do at home!

I can’t stress enough how important it is to adhere to the government guidelines. We all have a part in preventing the spread of the virus and protecting the most vulnerable in society. Also, if we all stick to the rules - we all get to keep running outside! If too many people ignore the guidelines we may end up with further restrictions.

So now the serious bit is over, let’s get into the top tips for running safely outdoors in this situation:

1. Wash your hands!

Make sure you wash your hands before you leave the house, and immediately upon your return. This means you’re protecting yourself, your household and others out and about.

We know that people are able to spread the virus before they get any symptoms. This means that we should treat everyone as potentially infectious – this includes yourself!

2. Avoid touching your face

Touching contaminated surfaces then touching your face is the main way people get infected with respiratory viruses (a handy little guide here). This is why washing your hands and avoiding contact with your face is so important.

Allocate one hand to be your ‘clean’ hand, the other to be your ‘dirty’ hand.

Avoiding touching your face is super hard for the average person at the best of times – even harder on a run! I always want to adjust my glasses, headphones, hair etc.

Now when running, I’ve started consciously using only my right hand to touch my face, water, gels, headphones etc. The left hand for things like pressing the button at pedestrian crossings, using bins etc. Think right hand = clean, left hand = dirty, and stick to this throughout your run.

Doing something simple like this massively reduces your chance of infection.

If you are lucky enough to have hand sanitiser then you can always take this with you and use each time you touch something outdoors. Always remember to wash both your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home.

3. Remember to keep social distancing

Try your best to keep 2m apart from others. There has been an increase in people taking to running or walking at the moment, meaning our favourite routes may now be quite busy – making two metres impossible! I’ve personally started avoiding our local canal, and instead choosing roads that are wide or less busy so I can give any other pedestrians a wide berth.

Running isn’t banned – but being that close is!

4. Wear your normal gear but be a little more prepared

Wear your normal running gear – there is no need for any protective gear. The only difference I’d say is make sure you have everything with you that you need. If you like to have snacks/water whilst running, it is best to take these items with you – this avoids unnecessary interactions in shops.

Wearing a buff around the face is fantastic when it’s cold out, but won’t offer you much protection against viruses.

I’ve had a few questions about wearing buffs over faces when going outside. Studies have shown that face coverings made out of cloth offer little protection (see here for a study on influenza). Viruses are super tiny (the Covid19 coronavirus is 100x smaller than a red blood cell), and would easily get through the weave of standard fabrics. Also, wearing anything around your face may make you touch your face more, giving rise to more opportunities to accidentally self-inoculate yourself. Though if you think that wearing a buff will remind you not to touch your face, then by all means give it a go!

It’s also important to know that the virus isn’t just floating around us in the air by itself – it’s spread via droplets of saliva that are produced when infected people sneeze/cough, these are too heavy to stay in the air for long, and quickly fall to the ground (see tweet below). If an infected person sneezes or coughs directly on you – you’re likely to get infected whether you wear a buff or not. Remember the main cause of infection in open spaces is touching contaminated surfaces, then touching your face – which is why points 1 and 2 are so important.

5. Don’t take risks!

With the NHS now heavily burdened and hospitals are a hot spot for infection, you really don’t want to end up there. Limit your risks where possible such as:

Stick to your normal routine - now isn't the time to overdo it
  • Avoiding busy roads,

  • Using designated road crossings,

  • Avoid unfamiliar routes

  • Avoid pushing yourself too hard

It is important to keep up your fitness and running in times like these. But sticking within your limits and reducing risks will avoid incident, and reduce burden on the NHS and our emergency services in this busy time.

If you’re new to running, then firstly – welcome! Take it easy and listen to your body. Programs like the NHS’s Coach to 5k are specifically designed by professionals for beginners to gently build up their running over a 9 weeks.

6. Remember to enjoy yourself!

Times are hard, and they’re going to be hard for a while. Going out once a day is so great to lift the spirits, have a bit of freedom and normality to our days – remember to enjoy it.

I’m trying to smile and wave to every runner I pass, and say ‘good morning’ to walkers. Sometimes a smile can brighten someone’s day! We may have to stay 2m apart, but we’re all in this together.

And finally......

Thanks for reading! If you have any specific questions that you think I might be able to help with, then please do get in touch! I’m trying to make some infographics for the general public so knowing what people are unsure about is really helpful for giving me direction, as well as (hopefully) giving everyone some sensible advice.

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