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Should You Run in Your Local Race During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

If your favorite race hasn’t fully gone virtual, here’s what to consider before signing up.

racing during coronavirus
David Jaewon Oh

COVID-19’s affect on health is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check in with your local health officials and resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread throughout the country, with more than 12.5 million confirmed cases in the United States as of November 23 and steadily rising throughout the country, it likely means many of your fall races—whether they were small, local races or a major marathon—are either postponed or changing significantly.

Many races have opted to give runners the option for virtual racing, which is safest for the health and fitness of yourself and others. But of course, that doesn’t give you the same race-day feeling, so some people may find themselves wanting to get back to in-person events. Maybe you’ve decided to seek out a local race, with extra precautions such as a staggered start and small entry cap. Or, maybe you eagerly signed up for your favorite holiday tradition—the Turkey Trot—and it’s not yet canceled, so you’re wondering what to do as race day approaches.

It’s important to remember we are in the middle of a global pandemic and any time you are in public places or around others, especially those that are outside of your immediate household, you’re at risk of contracting or spreading the virus, even asymptomatically. That’s why runners must continue to be diligent about running alone or with a small group of trusted training partners. So, it’s best for both your health and the health of others to avoid unnecessary public or private gatherings with those outside of your home.

We tapped Heather Milton, M.S., exercise physiologist supervisor at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center; Brian Clark, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine, Emily Thorp, infection prevention manager at UCHealth in Colorado, David Nieman, Dr.PH., health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, and Philip Tierno, Ph.D., instructor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine and author of First, Wear a Face Mask to get answers to questions you should think about before deciding you want to participate in a local race.

Before signing up for the race, what precautions should you ensure the race is taking?

According to the CDC, on a risk scale from lowest to highest, lowest risk would be a virtual event (race) done on your own, with the highest risk being a “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area,” which is why all major marathons and large races have been canceled for the general public.

Milton suggests that one of the first things you check for is information on what population the race is open to. If the race is only open to people in your area and doesn’t allow for participants traveling in from out of the area, you can then check what levels of community spread are to help assess risk level.

“This doesn’t mean everyone in the community is safe to be around, but it allows you to better tell what COVID infections are like in your community,” Milton says.


If the race allows for more entrants than is okay by public health guidelines, don’t participate, says Thorp. Check if volunteers will be required to wear face coverings, if aid station volunteers will be using gloves to serve your food and water, and if there will be hand sanitizer available for use prior to getting food or drinks and after using toilet facilities. Be sure the race will be complying with any other public health orders in the area.

Additionally, you’ll want to see if the race is providing updated information about any COVID-related guidance, requires symptom or temperature checks for all race participants, and is providing masks for anyone who doesn’t bring one.

Does a staggered start help?

We do know that distance is a key factor for reducing infection risk, says Milton. So, if the race is staggering a start, where small groups of runners—ideally from the same household—start at different times to avoid congestion at the start and on the course, that will help you keep distance from other runners.

It’s still not 100 percent safe, but staggering can make it easier to maintain distance between yourself and other people, says Milton. Especially if the start is spread over hours.

But, if the race is allowing a large number of participants, a staggered start may not be very effective. And, it will be hard for race directors to regulate distancing and mask wearing the day of the race—that will be up to other runners.

“I’ve coordinated marathons, 5Ks, and 10Ks—it’s a big job,” says Nieman. “And then to add on trying to spread runners out safely so that they can do the event, it’s going to be tough.”

If you break it down by the numbers, starting corrals aren’t going to work for distancing—especially in races of any significant size. Typically, runners line up shoulder to shoulder, but now, in order to maintain at least six feet of distance between runners on all sides, one runner would need to be in the space usually reserved for many runners. Additionally, everyone would have to make an effort to maintain a 6-foot distance from those in front of them as they run, which is not always something that happens at the start of a race.

If you have decided that you want to participate in a race, ensure there is extremely exaggerated social distancing, says Clark. Universal masking would help prevent the spread of the virus, but that is likely not realistic that all runners will adhere to that during the length of a race.

Keep in mind, a race is a public gathering, and large public gatherings are things that we’re trying to avoid right now, Clark says.

Should you wear a mask?

When in doubt, wear a mask, Milton says. And, many cities and states now mandate masks in public, not just when you are around others, so be sure to check local guidelines.

But one thing to note is the type of mask matters. You should always try to wear something that’s more than one layer, and one that fits over your nose and mouth. If you can, choose a mask that has an outside layer that’s more water resistant, and bring a backup should the one you’re running in gets too sweaty or wet from water, which can make it more challenging to breathe.

And even when you’re wearing a mask, it’s important to also keep a big distance between yourself and others—both factors are important when it comes to prevention of infection. Wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing.

Understandably, it’s challenging to run in warm weather with a mask on, but we’ve busted the myth that masks cause a person to inhale too much carbon dioxide, Milton says.

To help yourself thermoregulate if you’re in an area with warm winters, Milton suggests finding other ways to stay cool, like wearing lighter clothing, stopping for water, or splashing cool water on yourself.

If you are running a small race that had a staggered start, you might be lucky enough to not see another runner on the course. If that’s the case, it’s likely okay to take your mask off, but any time you’re going to be within six feet of other runners, spectators, or as you’re approaching an aid station, you should wear your mask. And, you should wear a mask at the start, especially if there are corrals of any size, and again at the finish as there are likely going to be other people around.

CDC guidance recommends “ in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.​ Masks offer some protection to you and are also meant to protect those around you, in case you are unknowingly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”

And, you should avoid spitting or snot rockets while out on the course, as COVID spreads through respiratory droplets.

Should you use an aid station?

COVID has not been found to be transmitted through food or water, but it would be a good idea to carry your own, says Thorp. But if you are in need of water or food, don’t hesitate to stop to get it.

“We would rather you not suffer the effects of dehydration or bonking if you can do it safely,” Thorp says.

This is when it comes back to the idea of distancing. Try to ensure you don’t come within six feet of others. Runners approaching an aid station should be wearing masks and keeping distance from others. Anyone manning an aid station should also be wearing masks, and setting water or fuel out for runners to grab, rather than handing it out.

And make sure that you are not in a congested area when removing your mask to drink.

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What about going to the bathroom prerace?

If you’re running a local race where you have a staggered start time, try to remember to use the bathroom at home before you run. However, the prerace stop at the porta-potty likely can’t be avoided. You’ll want to be sure to wear your mask and check beforehand if the race is providing hand sanitizer or a hand washing station.

It’s a unique situation, because you and many others will likely be using the bathroom in a short amount of time. While the virus mainly spreads via respiratory droplets, it can also spread via aerosolized particles—small particles that hang in the air longer than larger respiratory droplets—or in some cases by touching a surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, explains Tierno. Porta-potties may not be well-ventilated, so fresh air may not always be circulating, especially if there is no breeze.

Tierno suggests that races provide an aerosol spray, such as Lysol, that each person can use to help sanitize the bathroom before using it.

If there is not any hand sanitizer provided, one of main things to make sure of is you have some way of washing your hands. Even rinsing with water if you have no other option is better than nothing, says Milton.

What about spectators?

If the race allows for them, they should not gather in groups larger than is allowed, should stay further back from the course than they normally would, and should be wearing masks if they cannot physically distance.

Cowbells and other instruments would be a great alternative to yelling and cheering on your loved one, friends, strangers, says Thorp.

What are other things to consider?

When we run in races, we are typically racing hard, attempting to put our training to use and aiming for a new PR. And, runners have a natural tendency to want to race others and match pace with their competition, so even if the start is staggered, runners would need to be careful they are very cautious they resist this urge and keep distance from others. So, even if you end up in a place where you get close enough to pass someone, you should go wide around them to give them the proper 6-foot buffer, and try to pass as quickly as possible.

Heavy breathing leads to aerosol emission, and it’s very difficult to ensure safety in any kind of race environment, Nieman says. Even if the start is staggered, there is still worry about prerace activities, such as gathering at a starting line or lining up to use the bathroom, any post or prerace socialization, or gatherings at the finish line.

And, while exercise is generally beneficial to your immune system, mental or physical stress—caused by running a race or a very hard workout—could slightly increase your chances of becoming ill.

“In my viewpoint, it’s almost impossible to ensure safety of people in a race environment given the novel coronavirus,” Nieman says. “I’d just caution people to hold up and wait until we get this under control so racing can begin again.”

The race can do everything possible to set it up for runners to spread out and try to make safe, says Nieman, but on the day of the race, it’s going to be hard to enforce distancing and mask wearing of participants and spectators.

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