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Running Safely in a Pandemic: The Rise of Virtual Running

by King Smith 03 Dec 2020

Depending on where life has placed you during quarantine, you may have ample space outside to roam about down a long country road or next to a spacious and tree-filled park – or, like most people, you probably found yourself squashed in a small apartment with the same people for months on end.

Running is stress-relieving to many people, and when the initial quarantine guidelines mandated that everyone stay inside, lifelong runners got even more stressed. Luckily, we’ve learned a lot more about what is and isn’t safe by now, and runners have found ways and places to run and still maintain a sense of community – through virtual running.

Outdoor Activities You Can Do Safely During Quarantine

What you can or can’t do outside during quarantine largely depends on your state or country’s current rules (which seem to change weekly, in some places), but a few things are common among all guidelines. Outdoor activities, for the most part, are largely accepted as safer than indoor activities, though you’re encouraged to wear a mask to protect yourself and other people around you.

Walking through a park by yourself or with a housemate probably isn’t going to cause you to catch COVID-19. Playing tennis, where you’re far away from the person on the other side of the court, is similarly regarded as safe. Many non-contact sports are relatively safe ways to get outside. So how about running?

How to Run Safely in the Midst of a Pandemic

Running during a pandemic poses an interesting question; now that scientists have concluded that most virus particles are airborne, does that change how safe it is to run outside? Runners are typically breathing heavily and may exchange anywhere from 40-60 gallons of air every minute, depending on the size of their lungs and how fast they’re breathing. 60 gallons of air is a lot in an enclosed space, like a gym, but outside in a park it’s a drop in the atmosphere. If your parks and trails are not crowded and you rarely pass by other people, chances are it’s pretty safe to run outside. But if you’re frequently passing by other people, you might think twice before taking your run outdoors.

Let’s take a closer look at running races: many runners all clumped together at the start line, registration tables, water cooler stops, and fans cheering on the runners. All of a sudden, running outside isn’t quite as safe. Even if everyone is masked, these pieces of cloth covering our mouths are fallible, and let’s be honest that racing in a mask sounds pretty miserable, especially in the heat of summer. Since live, outdoor races were no longer an option, many runners turned to virtual running.

What is Virtual Running?

Virtual running isn’t a new idea, but it’s risen to prominence during 2020 as runners everywhere were forced to stay closer to home and advised to keep social distancing to a minimum of six feet. Since many runners, from 5K fanatics to hardcore marathoners, weren’t able to participate live in races, they turned to the idea of virtual running to compete in races across the nation and around the world. They maintained their sense of community and achieved many running goals while running alone in their neighborhoods or at home on their treadmills.

Virtual running allows runners to compete in races from wherever they are, often at their own pace over several days. Races will allow you to register for a race like normal, but instead of showing up at a starting line at a designated time and place, you’re given a period of a few days to a few weeks to run the distance.

Once you’ve reached the distance of the run, you send the organizers proof that you ran, and you get recognition that you’ve completed the race. Many treadmills will track your distance, but FitBits and other smart watches do a good job of this too.

Some races want you to complete the race all in one go; others, like marathons or half-marathons, allow you to split up your run into smaller, daily increments. It often depends on the goal of the organizers and what the point of the race is. Runs that are just for fun or for charity are often completion-based; real hardcore races, where you’re trying to get a PR or race against the best and fastest runners, encourage an all-in-one attempt.

The Benefits of Virtual Running on a Treadmill

Running virtual races on a treadmill definitely has its perks. If you have a treadmill that tracks your distance, you can submit a photo of your treadmill’s screen or sensors as proof that you finished the race and ran the proper distance. They’re usually a little more accurate than FitBits or smart watches since treadmills are calibrated more precisely than GPS or step tracking.

The more feature-laden treadmills will also allow you to change your elevation, so if you’re nursing an injury and don’t want to run up as many hills, you don’t have to. Similarly, if you really want the challenge of a tough, hilly course – say, San Francisco – you can change the elevation to push yourself even harder. Having precise control over the course gives you a safer run for your body, where you can tailor the course to your unique needs.

Speaking of safety, running a virtual race on a treadmill allows you to run at any time of day and still feel safe. If you’re a night owl and want to get your workout in after the sun is down, running indoors is safer than running outdoors; you’re less likely to trip over dark objects, lose your sense of direction, or come across people you might not feel comfortable around. Running safely is important if you want to enjoy running for years to come.

Running safely during a pandemic is often a matter of circumstance, and it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re exposing yourself or others to potential risk. Having a home treadmill to support your runs makes the choice easier; if you can run a race from your home gym or living room, why wouldn’t you? With a portable WalkingPad treadmill, you even have the option to take your virtual run out onto your porch or balcony for a breath of fresh air. With home treadmills and virtual running, you can keep yourself and your family safe and still get those miles in.

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