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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: A few neighbors formed a running group to train for a marathon in 2021. I’m thinking about joining them as I know that running can be good exercise, but I’ve never run before. Is running a marathon actually good for my health? Should I do certain things to avoid injuries?
ANSWER: Being active and engaging in regular aerobic exercise is important for overall heart health and wellness. Typically, 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week is recommended for most healthy adults. Running is a simple, low-cost exercise, and you should be commended for starting a new exercise regimen.
As a first-time runner, I’d recommend that you talk with your health care provider about any concerns, especially if you have any health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart issues or a history of prior musculoskeletal injuries. Ask your health care provider about any symptoms that you might want to watch for when you run.
Before starting out, I would suggest you invest in a good pair of running shoes and make sure that you warm up and stretch prior to any run. Focus on cross training with exercises that strengthen your hips and core.
If your neighbors are seasoned runners, you may want to consider joining a training program to help you build stamina and increase your mileage over time.
As a novice runner, a marathon may sound overwhelming, but recent research shows that it really could be the key to better health. A study out of the United Kingdom showed first-time marathon runners significantly improved their cardiovascular health during training for a 26.2-mile race.
Specifically, this study showed participants had improvements in overall cardiovascular health but particularly related to the stiffness of the aortic vessel. This is important because as people age, the body’s vessels become stiffer. This can be detrimental to your health since with stiff vessels your body has to work harder to pump blood.
In addition to runners having a substantial decrease in the stiffness of the aortic vessel, which moves blood throughout our body, the study found marathon training improved blood pressure.
The study looked at marathon runners six months prior to training and three week after they completed the London Marathon. On average, the subjects ran about 6 to 13 miles in training per week.
If running a marathon seems too daunting, consider a half marathon or a 5K. The cardiovascular benefits of running remain, no matter the distance. One of the most interesting findings of the UK study was that the slowest runners had the greatest improvements in cardiovascular health.
If running is not enjoyable or you have other issues — let’s say your knees or back make it challenging to run — you can still benefit from lacing up your sneakers. Walking regularly at a brisk pace can result in improvements in overall cardiovascular health and vessel stiffness.
Whatever activity you chose, the key is that you want to aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week. Walking or running with the neighbors is a great way to combine exercise and socialization. And if you’re wondering about the definition of moderate intensity, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but you should not be able to carry a tune. —Dr. Sara Filmalter, Family and Sports Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
Answers to your most frequently asked questions as the virus continues to spread.
This is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) regularly. This story will be updated as new information becomes available.
While the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, causing running races—and many other large events—to be postponed and canceled, you might be wondering what you should do for your own personal health and how this could affect your training.
Is it safe to run outside?
Yes—in fact, it’s safer to be outside than inside when it comes to disease transmission. When people congregate together and someone sneezes or coughs, droplets get onto objects that people touch, and then people touch their face, Nieman explains. The best plan for running right now is to go out for a solo run and enjoy the outdoors.
Additionally, people might be afraid to run in the colder weather for fear of illness, but that’s not true; there is no data that you will get sick from really any respiratory pathogen when running in cold weather, Nieman says.
Getting in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to brisk activity can help your immune system keep viruses at bay. Be sure you know what’s going on in your area and if there are any restrictions or mandatory self-quarantines. And, if you’re sick or at-risk of spreading the virus, you shouldn’t go out—the bigger concern is spreading it to those who are at high risk, such as the elderly or immunocompromised.
During a self quarantine, Nieman suggests doing some exercise while staying where you are quarantined to keep healthy—doing bodyweight exercises or running on an at-home treadmill are great ways to do this. Unless you’re sick.
“If you do have flu or coronavirus, or have fever, sick people think wrongly they can ‘exercise the virus out of the system’ or ‘sweat it out,’ that’s a myth. It’s actually the opposite,” Neiman says.
Can you run outside during a shelter-in-place mandate?
Effective March 19, residents of the state of California were ordered to shelter in place until further notice, meaning everyone is to stay inside their homes and away from others as much as possible. However, as outlined in the directive first put in place in San Francisco, this allows for people to go outside and engage in solo outdoor activity, such as running, walking, and hiking, as long as people practice safe social distancing (stay six feet apart) and do not gather in groups.
And, according to a press conference, New York City may soon follow suit.
Overall, be sure to check your local public health recommendations and the current health mandates in your area, found on your state and local government website before heading anywhere for a workout. (You can find a directory of state health departments here.)
Should you avoid running in groups?
Your exposure to sick people running outside should be minimal, as someone who has a fever and a cough won’t feel like going for a run, Labus says. As of March 15, the CDC recommends that for the next 8 weeks, in-person events that consist of 50 people or more are canceled or postponed. And, the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America suggest that people avoid social gatherings of over 10 people for the next 15 days to help slow the spread.
If you find yourself in a group or on a crowded route, you could protect yourself a bit by spreading out (6 feet apart is the recommendation for safe social distancing) and avoiding unnecessary hand-touching. And of course, don’t forget to wash your hands when you get back.
Should I avoid touching traffic buttons?
The latest data with the novel coronavirus is that it does not last very long on objects outside because of the exposure to sunlight. In general, objects outside should have little virus on them, Nieman explained. However, there could be a problem if someone coughs into his or her hand immediately before touching a traffic button, and then you touch the traffic button after them. If you must touch the traffic button, do not touch your face after. Even better? Use a glove (then avoid touching your face), sleeve, or elbow.
Can coronavirus be spread through sweat?
According to the CDC, transmission of the coronavirus happens between people who are in close contact with one another (about six feet) and through respiratory droplets, produced through a cough or sneeze—not sweat.
Am I contagious if I have no symptoms?
This is one thing we don’t fully understand yet about coronavirus. You are probably contagious right before you begin to show symptoms, but we don’t know for what time period and we don’t know how contagious. It makes sense that you would be more contagious once you are coughing, but we don’t fully understand transmission yet, Labus says.
Social distancing is the answer right now, Nieman says. Experts are still trying to figure out how long the virus lives on objects, and the problem is that it appears to be highly contagious, spread easily by coughing and sneezing, and can be spread by people who don’t think they’re sick. That’s why hand-washing and not touching your face are so important.
Is my immune system weaker postmarathon or after a hard workout?
As you deplete your stores of glycogen, your immune system does not function as well as it normally does. That means in the hours following a half marathon or marathon, if you have been exposed to someone who has been sick with the flu or coronavirus, your bodies defenses are down, Neiman says. Additionally, mental or physical stress—caused by running a marathon or a very hard workout—could slightly increase your chances of becoming ill, Labus explains.
“I would caution runners to avoid long, intense runs right now until we get through all this and just to kind of keep things under control,” Nieman says. “Don’t overdo it. Be worried more about health than fitness.”
However, that doesn’t mean you need to quit running or exercising altogether. There is a very strong connection between regular exercise and a strong immune system in the first place, so the long-term immune system benefits of running far outweigh any short-term concerns, Labus says.
Are gyms safe for indoor training?
Many cities and states around the country are taking extra measures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Gyms across the country like Barry’s Bootcamp, Mile High Run Club, and WORK Training Studio are temporarily closing out of an abundance of caution. Gyms (and other nonessential businesses) in states including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are also closed. Overall, be sure to check your local gym and local public health recommendations before heading anywhere for a workout. (You can find a directory of state health departments here.)
At this time, at-home workouts may be your best bet for keeping up your fitness routine and helping to ensure your own health and the health of those around you. Many closed gyms are offering free online streaming of their workouts.
And, no matter where you sweat, you should remember to wash your hands regularly, especially after your workout and wipe down all your equipment when you are done using it.
If my race isn’t canceled, should I go?
You might be wondering what to do about your St. Patrick’s Day 5K, or the marathon you’ve been training for. Bottom line, no. As of March 15, the CDC recommends that for the next 8 weeks, in-person events that consist of 50 people or more are canceled or postponed.
Nieman suggests that the goal right now is to avoid crowds and gatherings of people indoors and outdoors until we know better about how the virus can spread.
If my race is canceled but there are other group run events in its place, should I go?
You might be seeing group runs or unofficial races popping up in your community in place of canceled races. But any time people come together, there is a chance for the disease to spread. Again, as of March 15, the CDC recommends that for the next 8 weeks, in-person events that consist of 50 people or more are canceled or postponed. And, the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America suggest that people avoid social gatherings of over 10 people for the next 15 days to help slow the spread.
In general, be mindful of your interactions with others and take basic steps to protect yourself, like washing your hands, limiting direct contact with others, and not touching your face, you can reduce your risk of many different infections, Labus says. Remember that, even though everyone is focused on coronavirus, flu is still circulating widely.
How dangerous is spitting while running right now?
Spreading COVID-19 via spit is possible, according to Amy Treakle, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with The Polyclinic in Seattle. “COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, and transmission may occur when these droplets enter the mouths, noses, or eyes of people who are nearby. Spit contains saliva but could also contain sputum from the lungs or drainage from the posterior nasopharynx,” she says.
Sorry, snot rocketeers: Treakle says shooting mucus out of your nose isn’t any better. “Having witnessed and participated in races, I think it’s appropriate to note that this would apply to projectile nasal secretions.”
And, the spread of the particles being about six feet (current safe social distancing recommendations) is based on people standing near each other and not fast movement or strong air currents. Those could increase or decrease that distance. In a scenario where someone runs into a sneeze or a cough, that would obviously present an increased risk, says Labus. That’s why it’s important to stay in your home if you are feeling sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick, in order to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus to others.
How long can COVID-19 live on clothing?
Experts don’t yet know the risk of transmitting the virus from surfaces like clothing, Treakle says. But the World Health Organization reports that coronaviruses can remain on surfaces for a few hours up to several days. If your clothing gets hit by spit, avoid touching the area, and change your clothing as soon as possible, washing your hands afterward. To disinfect clothing, wash it in hot water and use the dryer’s high setting.