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The Future of Competitive Running After Lockdown

In a world that has been deprived of competitive sport for so long, those of us who enjoy either taking part in sport, or watching it as spectators in an arena or on the television, will have breathed a collective sigh of relief as sporting competitions start to re-emerge in a post Covid-19 world.

Sports such as horse racing, golf, snooker and soccer have led the way, with others such as motor racing not far behind. 

Competitive Running: Virus’ Challenges  

My sport is running, and as I have written in my blog before, running has never been more important as a means of maintaining mental and physical health during this time of lockdownRunning as a means of training is simple, and lends itself to remoteness and self-isolationbut competitive running is something very different, and at a time when so many sports are starting to see their return, it is very hard to see how competitive running can take place in an era of social distancing and the constant threat of a re-emergence of the virus.

Over the years, I have stood on the start line of many running races, ranging in distance from 800m on the track, to the 42km of a marathon.  I don’t think I have ever managed to complete any of these races without staying more than one or two meters away from my rivals.  Indeed, the crowded streets of the London Marathon, which I have been fortunate to have run on many occasions, often resembles a single panting, sweating mass, rather than thousands of individual runners, so closely are they packed together in places. 

Man running in the street in front of mountains and a lake

Further Problems with Running Competitions

Furthermore, as a sport and exercise scientist, I am only too aware of the vast volumes of air that runners breathe into, and out of, their lungs, and which then lingers in the atmosphere around them.  Many runners could easily be exhaling around 80 liters of air each minute, all of which will have previously and rapidly made the journey into, and then out of, their lungs. Multiply this by all of the runners who are all doing the same, and all in close proximity to each other, and you can quickly see why the competitive sport of running is a high-risk activity for the transmission of a virus.  Even in smaller, local races, the same problem arises, with runners frequently staying close to each other, or within the environment of another runner’s exhaled air.  Major events such as the big-city marathons have the additional problem of spectators, with many hundreds of thousands often cramming the route, and filling the local transport networks to capacity.

When will Running Emerge from Lockdown?

So, whilst many sports slowly emerge from the darkness of lockdown, it is hard to see how and when competitive running will be able to resume. Of course this is tough for runners, but for many of the clubs that host small races around the world, the income from entry fees is their lifeblood; for the many charities that benefit from the vast amounts of sponsorship raised by runners in mass participation events, the sums raised are what sustains them and their charitable activities throughout the year.

Clever and Likely Solutions

Black man takes a snap to start running. Throw sand.

Are there any solutions that could allow competitive running to resume? Rather than a mass start, perhaps setting runners off in “waves” could work. This technique is already used in some major events to prevent over-crowding, but to do so in a way that allows for social distancing is a huge logistical challenge.  Perhaps some sort of “distancing device” could be developed, which can be worn by runners and alerts them when they get too close to a competitor, but at the moment nothing of this nature seems to exist. 

Let’s hope that greater minds than mine are on the case, and can come up with a solution soon, since whilst running has helped to maintain my physical and mental fitness during lockdown, and I may even be fitter than I have been for a long time as a result of having more time to train, I would love to put my fitness to the test, and stand on the start line once again!


John Brewer, Visiting Professor of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Suffolk

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