It’s Still Safe to Run Outside — Here’s How to Do It

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Taking your run outside can have a number of benefits — if you do it correctly.
Image Credit: Drazen Zigic/iStock/GettyImages

In the wake of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, many people are shifting their typical workout routine. For some, that means finding an alternative to boutique fitness studios and leaning into at-home workout apps. For others, it means getting into running in the great outdoors.

As long as you're hitting the pavement (or trails!) solo, this is a perfectly safe way to get in a sweat. Still, for many, running outside might be a totally new thing. Whether you've been more of a treadmill warrior in the past or never really got into running in the first place, it's a good avenue for runners of all levels.

Plus, getting outside can keep you active for longer than doing it inside, according to July 2012 research in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. And according to a January 2011 study published in Nutrition Research, 41.6 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient, something that getting active outdoors can change in a flash — strengthening your muscles (and bones!) in the process.

"It's refreshing as a coach to see so many people taking an interest in the sport of running right now," says Jes Woods, Nike running and Brooklyn Track Club ultra and trail coach. "Many of us have the opportunity to lace up and get outside, and ideally, make the most out of a tough situation."

Ready to tackle an outdoor run, but don't know exactly where to start? The experts weigh in on their best-practice tips for running outside.

Essential Tips to Staying Healthy While Running Outside

As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, the answer to "Is it safe to run outside?" depends largely on where you live. In general, always follow all federal, state and local government recommendations. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) will have the most reliable and up-to-date information.

The most important thing is that you don't go out anywhere if you feel sick, according to the CDC. And if you do go out (which is allowed, even if you're under "shelter in place" orders), run alone.

It's also important to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between you and anyone you encounter on the trails. Additionally, the CDC now recommends face masks or cloth coverings if you're going to be around people — even if you're practicing social distancing.

Avoid high-touch areas like crosswalk buttons or water fountains. Don't touch your face and wash you hands immediately after returning home. Lastly, leave your shoes outside or at the door as soon as you get home.

1. Don’t Skimp on Stretches and Warm-Ups

It can be super tempting to jump past your warm-up when you're anxious to get moving. But according to February 2018 research published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, a good, fluid warm-up can help increase range of motion and stave off injury.

Before you start, make sure to keep your muscles and joints moving with dynamic (moving) stretches. "Focus on your soleus (calf muscle) and hip flexors, but don't forget your feet and ankles," says David Potucek, physical therapist with Elite Health Services. "And mimic the joint motions of running with brisk walking, high knees, butt kicks, jump rope or stairs." (Or try one of these eight stretches before taking off.)

When you're finished with your run, that's when you can do static, or still, stretches. "Perform some static stretches and mobility drills for the calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, IT bands, glutes and quads using a foam roller or lacrosse ball," Potucek says.

2. Know Your Route Before You Get Going

Unlike hitting the treadmill, where you're staying in one place for the duration of your sweat, tackling the open road leaves a lot of room for decision-making. Cut out some of the anxiety by planning exactly where you're going from the moment your run begins.

"This way, you can relax," says Precision Run coach and Variis instructor, Elizabeth Corkum, called "Coach Corky" by her clients. "You don't need the added stress of navigating or planning during your run."

Corkum adds that the ideal route would be a park or a road with space to safely run. This way, you don't have to navigate congested intersections or excess traffic.

Tip

Always run against traffic, Corkum says. That means you'll stay on the left side of a road with cars passing on your right side. This way, you’re more visible and are aware of what’s happening around you.

3. Make Time to Mix Things up

You don't need to go out there and run the exact same 5K loop every single day. In fact, it's a lot better if you don't, Corkum says. "Variety is the spice of life. Make sure to balance your hard efforts with easy and aerobic runs. Easy days are incredibly necessary for staying healthy."

For example, one day run for 3 miles uninterrupted. Then, a few days later, try some running intervals, mixing faster and slower speeds. This way, you'll stave off boredom and have fun learning what type of running you like best.

"Interval training, cadence work and hill climbs are all techniques that can provide variability in training and work different aspects of running mechanics," Potucek says.

4. Be Patient With Your Progress

Don't go overboard the second you're running on the regular. Woods suggests that new-to-running athletes start with some sort of walk-and-run plan, at a maximum of three days of activity per week. "You don't want to do too much too soon," Woods says. "While hitting new milestones is great, you shouldn't be making big jumps that could lead to injury."

Mixing up the type of surface you run on also helps. "You'll also need to give yourself time to adapt to harder running surfaces like pavement," Potucek says. "Or you can start running on a track or trail, as there's better shock absorption."

Once you safely reach two weeks of building a habit and getting into the groove, Woods suggests gradually adding either more distance or more time. "A good rule of thumb is not to add more than 2 miles per week of training in total," she says.

Or stick to the 10-percent rule. "That means not adding more than 10 percent to intensity, speed, duration or frequency in one run," Potucek says. "You can also use perceived exertion to gauge how hard you can push yourself on any given day. On days you feel good, work harder; on days you feel tired, decrease training intensity."

5. Cross-Train to Prep Your Body for Outdoor Terrain

Staying injury-free while running isn't just a matter of what you do on your run. What you do on your non-run days also factors in. Whether you mix things up by cycling or doing a body-weight HIIT workout, you should also make time for strength training.

"When you run on a treadmill, there's less active hip extension, so exercises like bridges and hip thrusts can get your glutes ready for outdoor training," Potucek says. "Forces on the Achilles are also higher when running on a treadmill, making calf stretches even more important for outdoor runners."

Runners often develop pain in the front or side of the knee called runner's knee. To minimize your risk, strengthen your glutes and hip flexors with clamshells, side-lying leg lifts and hip thrusts, Potucek says. Practicing single-leg dynamic balance exercises and single-leg squats will also help with lower-body stability.

6. Don't Forget to Wear Layers

Whether it's cold outside or on the warmer side, layering allows you to gauge the temperature as you move and stay comfortable. You want to make sure that your layers are sweat-wicking, which means that they — you guessed it — help get sweat away from the body and keep you cool.

Also, avoid cotton when you can. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet, unlike other performance-focused choices. Since cotton dries so slowly, you may get cold — and stay cold.

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