How to Run Outside (and Other COVID-Related Questions)

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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How to Run Outside (and Other COVID-Related Questions)

With the COVID-19 situation changing daily, it can be challenging for a runner to figure out what’s still allowed or advisable when it comes to running. Luckily, two doctors, coaches and serious runners are here to offer some advice for what’s smart and safe right now. Of course, always check with your local guidelines for the best advice and err on the side of caution when in doubt. We’re in this together!


Social distancing rules apply, but getting outside is still OK in most places and I would argue that it’s very important for your mood and health,” says Jason Friedman, an emergency medicine physician, exercise physiologist, coach and ultrarunner. “Some areas are under strict stay-at-home orders or don’t want people exercising more than a mile from home, so you need to know the laws in effect in your area.” Aim to stay close to home, and check your town’s website to see what’s allowed in your area. If a trail or path is closed, respect that. Try to run at times when fewer people will be clogging the streets, like early morning or during work hours, especially if you live in a densely populated area.


Friedman actually recommends dropping your pace when you see others on the trail and need to pass: Try to control your breathing to avoid panting, even if that means slowing to a walk. “Reduce your work of breathing and therefore reduce the amount of water vapor and virus you’re potentially releasing around you,” he adds. Megan Roche, a doctor, endurance runner and coach notes it’s helpful to give a warning you’re going to pass as early as possible if you’re coming up behind someone so they are able to get out of the way. It’s still unknown whether the six-foot rule is enough for runners, cyclists and walkers, so it’s best to err on the most possible distance in addition to six feet.


If you live in a densely populated urban area, like in NYC where wearing a mask is a government mandate, you should wear a mask if you’re going to run outside. However, in many places where wearing a mask in stores might be mandated, wearing a mask while exercising remains discretionary (pay attention to your local guidelines for the latest orders). “The evidence supporting cloth mask use is highly varied,” says Roche, who adds that the efficacy of wearing a mask for running or walking hasn’t been studied at all yet.

Friedman would recommend a buff if you are running in a more populated area to help cut down on droplets spreading as you breathe. However, unless you regularly run wearing a balaclava or buff, donning one may make your breathing more difficult and ultimately do the opposite of its intended effect. Plus, if the mask gets wet from breathing, sweating and nasal secretions, it’s no longer effective. “If you are going to wear a cloth mask or buff [on a run], it’s important to follow proper mask precautions including washing your hands before putting on the mask and avoiding touching the corners of the mask.”

Experts’ opinions vary, too. “I don’t recommend running with a mask, as the mask will inhibit your ability to breathe especially when exerting yourself,” says Henry F. Raymond, associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and an expert in epidemiology. “Instead, run alone and maintain distance between yourself and others greater than six feet. Aim for at least 12 feet, if not more.”

Even when wearing a mask, Roche adds that it’s important to continue to follow proper social-distancing guidelines. Don’t consider wearing a mask as a reason to skimp on following social distancing rules. She adds that you’re probably better off simply avoiding people entirely if possible, so your route selection is much more important than what to wear.


Running might feel safe because it’s rare you touch much when you’re on the go, but you’re also much more likely to touch your face to wipe sweat, wipe your nose or mouth or adjust your glasses. “Avoiding spitting or snot rocketing is helpful right now,” says Roche. “Avoiding touching surfaces at trailheads is another precaution to take.” The same applies to any port-a-potties that are still open, crossing signals, door handles or stair banisters along your route.


Even if you’re feeling only a little off, stay inside and take a few days off. The same applies if you’ve been exposed to someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you’re returning from travel abroad or in an affected area. “If you are symptomatic, it is important not to run outdoors because we are still figuring out the degree of COVID-19 infectivity outdoors,” says Roche. “And people in densely populated areas who cannot practice social distancing should find creative indoor exercises until things become safer.”


If you’re one of the uber-productive people who’s using this time to bake bread, write a novel and get ultra-fit, proceed with extreme caution when it comes to adding mileage or intensity. “Right now, it’s important to be cautious to avoid overtraining or overreaching, which could compromise the immune system and put you at higher risk for infection,” says Roche. “Training load is also something that is highly dependent on the individual so it’s important to frame the context of ‘long’ and ‘hard’ in terms of what you’ve personally done in past training. Erring on the side of caution and using this time to build the low-level aerobic system is not a bad option and can be fun in the process.” (That can mean adding run/walks or even just longer walks after your run rather than pushing for a new distance record.)

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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