A Guide to Running Through the Apocalypse

Running is one of the only safe outdoor exercises today. Here’s how to enjoy it (and stay safe).

Photo: Artem Varnitsin/EyeEm/Getty Image

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WWhen the middle school near Boston where she works as a librarian was shut down by coronavirus fears — followed by the gym where she boxes and the YMCA where she works out — Jamie Lightfoot found herself housebound and frustrated.

Even walking with friends seemed a bad idea. And with none of those regular outlets available to her, says Lightfoot, “I was eating a ton and just sitting around.”

So she did something that she hasn’t done regularly in five years: laced up and headed outside for a run.

It felt really good,” says Lightfoot, 40, just in from finishing her first three miles. In addition to the physical benefits, the jog outdoors took her away from the barrage of negativity in the news and on her social media feed. Other runners and walkers waved and said hello, which seldom happened before. “It was almost like people were craving the human connection.”

At a time when those kinds of connections are becoming few and far between, and when gyms are closing and work has moved home, the new reality of social distancing is leaving few options besides running for people who want to stay fit and need to get out of the house (there are plenty of at-home workout options). Running doesn’t require much equipment, poses little health risk, and has the added advantage of boosting endorphins and distracting from the grim reality of the pandemic.

“People are desperate for some physical exercise,” says Matt Mills, a running coach in Los Angeles and founder of Coaching on the Run. “A lot of them are going out for a run. It’s safe. It’s easy. If you have a pair of sport shoes, it’s free.”

Running stores report a steady stream of novices among their customers.

Volume at his shop may be lower than in a typical early spring, says Mark Plaatjes, owner of In Motion Running in Boulder Colorado, but “we have a lot of people that have come in who are, like, ‘I can’t go to the gym, the rec centers are closed, I can’t meet my friends, but I can go for a run.’ There has definitely been an uptick in that.”

Other runners and walkers waved and said hello, which seldom happened before. “It was almost like people were craving the human connection.”

A former champion marathoner himself and a physical therapist, Plaatjes has responded by putting together a free training plan his staff hands out to customers who are just beginning to run. That’s more complicated than some new runners think — especially at a time when, if they’re injured, they’ll find it hard to get tested or treated for injuries in a health care system that is otherwise preoccupied. Running too far or too fast, too soon, risks stress fractures, shin splints, or tendon injuries. And “the last place in the world you want to be right now is the ER,” says fitness trainer Jeanette DePatie, co-creator of an online beginning running program called Rock the Road.

So, how do you start running without getting hurt?

Step 1: Find the right shoes. The Road Runner Sports chain offers a virtual tool called ShoeDog that spits out recommendations based on a short list of criteria including mileage goals and weight.

You can also give yourself the water test, DePatie said: Wet your bare feet and stand on a piece of paper to determine their width and the height of your arches. Or use one of those do-it-yourself drug store kiosks to check if you need arch supports (drug stores and pharmacies that may have these will remain open).

While you’re buying new shoes, DePatie recommends throwing in a pair of anti-blister socks. Jacksonville personal trainer Josh Smith suggests a wicking shirt. “Especially if you’re new, the—let’s say—more sensitive areas of your body may not be used to the friction and chafing,” he says.

Step 2: Warm up and stretch. Olson encourages focusing on getting the body primed for movement, by rotating your trunk, then grabbing a doorknob and swinging your legs, one at a time, from front to back and side to side. To strengthen your arches, which take a pounding when you run, sit on a chair and scrunch a towel with your toes, as if you’re making a fist, for five seconds; repeat 10 times, twice a day.

Once outside, “The important thing is just to get your body used to physical activity, even if it’s just by walking briskly for five minutes or starting with a light jog,” says Mills. You can start by alternating running and walking — four minutes of running and one minute of walking, for example, repeated a few times. “The key is to make it easy for yourself at first to build confidence, so you feel inspired to keep going.”

Step 3: Take it slow. All kinds of people are getting out on the road — from neophytes to former runners, such as Lightfoot, who are returning after a hiatus — making it important for each to begin at their own level and ramp up slowly. “You probably won’t be able to start where you left off,” says DePatie. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is that people think they can do it all, like weekend warriors. You don’t want to overdo it at the start.”

Stretch after running, too, Smith said. And work in rest days for recovery.

Step 4: Enjoy the runner’s high. Perhaps as important now as its physical benefits is the badly needed stress relief that running can provide. A run can structure days that seem out of control, for instance. “It’s an appointment, a place you have to be, a thing to do,” says DePatie.

Running has been shown by research to reduce the symptoms of depression, decrease anxiety, and improve sleep. Running “is a very healthy outlet to manage stress,” says Amanda Olson, a running coach and physical therapist in Oregon. “Any cardiovascular exercise is going to improve mood, and it may counteract some of the negative ways that people are managing their stress, such as staying inside and eating.”

She adds: “We can work through our feelings while we’re on a run, or we can look at the beautiful scenery around ourselves and bring ourselves out of that claustrophobic state. It provides a sense of normalcy.”

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Jon Marcus writes for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other U.S. and U.K. media outlets.

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