Getting started with running in a pandemic

It may not seem like the best time to learn to run, but with outdoor exercise being limited during the current pandemic to walking, running or cycling, having an extra string to your training bow may be a good idea to bolster your health and also offer an outlet for all the extra stress you are probably carrying around right now.

I know that running is doing a great job of offloading my anxiety as well as giving me a decent workout, maintaining my hard earned distance running fitness and giving me some fresh air and vitamin D. Walking is great exercise (never underestimate it) but picking up the pace will increase your cardiovascular function and can also really help burn some energy: great when we are stuck indoors all day for the foreseeable.

A few COVID-19 running caveats:

  • Run from your home. Driving to a venue to run is an unnecessary journey and, if you’re a beginner, you want to be within walking distance of home in case you get too tired. No one needs rescuing with an injury or exhaustion right now. Don’t be that idiot.
  • Maintain a safe distance of two metres between you and anyone you meet. That means running alone or with a member of your household. Not everyone has great spatial awareness, so be alert to phone zombies, older folk or families trying to corral small children and give them a wide berth.
  • Your run is your one permitted excursion for the day. Plan your time well and don’t put people at risk  by exceeding this. We’re all going to end up completely restricted to our homes if people flout the rules. For many dyed in the wool runners, this daily jaunt is our lifeline to sanity. Compromise this for the rest of us and we will find you…
  • Absolutely do not run if you feel even slightly unwell. Now is not the time to compromise your immunity. And it should go without saying that a continuous cough combined with a fever or other symptoms of ill health should mean self-isolation. Follow the government guidelines. If you are a keen distance runner who had a spring marathon cancelled, ditching the 20 milers may seem sacrilegious, but you need to maintain immunity. This isn’t forever, and you’ll really regret trying to recover from an illness targeting your lungs because you pushed too hard.

(Photo from January’s TRIBE Run for Love to end modern slavery, Bristol).

You need a guide

Even if you are fit from other sports, running is tough, and it may well feel like you are getting your butt kicked to start with. You do need to persist if you want to make progress, and the breathlessness and sore muscles will ease when your body adapts. I  learned to run pre-Couch to 5k, which is many people’s starting point nowadays and is supported by the NHS. You will learn to run 5km (3 miles) by following a walk/run plan three times a week. It’s very effective and is  popular because it works. I used a great book that was produced by the now-defunct Zest magazine (anyone?) called Running Made Easywritten by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson. It also uses the run/walk method to get you moving and I loved it.

Now, if you’re thinking the concept of walk breaks sound like a cop out, back up for second. Trainer Jeff Galloway has had great success training people to run long distance races like marathons using this technique, known widely as ‘Jeffing’, without compromising times and, importantly, with decreased fatigue and fewer injuries. I still run/walk and fully intend to ‘Jeff it’ around the Berlin Marathon in September if this virus has passed by then.

What to wear, eat and drink 

It’s not the time to be able to be properly fitted for trainers at a running shop so wear what you have, seeing as you’re not going too far. A supportive bra is essential for boobs, though, which can bounce several centimetres while running. It’s painful enough to really put you off, so strap down. A tee and leggings, shorts or tracksuit pants will do until you decide if you want to persevere, in which case investing in run-specific, sweat-wicking clothes will make your life much more comfortable. If you want a massive 50% off some ethically made running kit, head over to Sundried and use my code TRACY at the checkout.

You won’t need a fancy running vest for building up to a 5km, so skip anything unnecessary. Holding a bottle can also chafe your skin as well as throwing your biomechanics out (you can build a lot of tension in the upper body by gripping tightly) so just drink before you go and have your last meal a couple of hours before you run to avoid stomach issues and ensure you have enough energy. No carb-loading is required for these short distances and don’t over eat when you get back. It takes a long run to build the caloric deficit needed for a massive post-training refeed.

Balance your activity

Strong running needs stronger joints and muscles, so try a couple of strength training or HIIT sessions weekly (there are loads of free ones available right now including my Combat HIIT class, 1pm Monday over on Instagram) and also try yoga as a complement to calm the mind, stretch out tight muscles and maintain your flexibility. I really miss swimming at the moment, which is a great non-impact exercise when you are recovering from a hard run.

Look ahead!

If you try running now and learn to love it, a whole new world awaits once the pandemic is over! You’ll be able to try Parkrun, enter races, raise money for charity and maybe even collect a few medals. Magazines like Runner’s World UK  and Women’s Running are great sources of inspiration, and you’ll be joining a welcoming community of runners of all ages and abilities.

I look forward to seeing you at an event on the other side!