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The cheering crowds, the splash of water at aid stations, the thrill of the finish line. With a few notable exceptions—such as the Marine Corps and Tokyo Marathons, which have both been cancelled—in-person racing is back this fall.
The Berlin Marathon kicked off the first of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, and the London Marathon, Chicago Marathon, Boston Marathon, and New York City Marathon are scheduled to proceed as planned in October and November. Many other local races have also returned to roads and trails.
While COVID-19’s most recent surge seems to have finally slowed (on September 29, the seven-day moving average of cases was down to 110,232 from a recent peak of more than 160,000 earlier in the month), the pandemic is far from over. That’s still a lot of people getting sick every day, many of them with the more contagious Delta variant.
“There is no doubt a runner is taking a risk by choosing to participate in a race this fall,” says Dr. Ivette Murphy-Aguilu, a marathoner and infectious disease specialist at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. “The degree of risk, however, varies from person to person.” Here, expert advice on the factors to consider when running during COVID, and steps you can take to minimize the danger to yourself and others.
Consider your risk factors—and those of people close to you.
Though many runners consider themselves healthy, they can still have factors that place them at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 or getting very sick. This includes being 65 or older, having an underlying health condition like diabetes, or taking a medication that weakens the immune system.
You should also consider whether you live or regularly interact with unvaccinated or immunocompromised people, including children too young to get the shot. “If you were to get sick, it is much more likely that you would infect an unvaccinated household member or possibly an immunocompromised one—and they could be at higher risk for severe COVID resulting in hospitalization since they do not have the added protection of the vaccine,” Dr. Murphy-Aguilu says.
Experts can’t emphasize this point enough. “The vaccine remains highly effective against SARS-COv2, including the Delta variant,” Dr. Murphy-Aguilu says. “More importantly, it is highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death.”
Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and adjunct faculty member at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in Los Angeles, agrees. “If someone wants to run a race, and they still haven’t gotten vaccinated, that should give them the final push,” says Kullar, who’s raced 15 marathons. “I cannot tell you how many people I see who are severely sick, and they’re mostly all unvaccinated. Now’s the time to do it.”
Some people who got the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, including older adults and people who work in certain high-risk jobs, can now get booster shots. Check with your health care provider about your eligibility, Dr. Murphy-Aguilu says. And make sure you allow at least two weeks to pass after your last shot before you line up to race.
Know the rules in place at each race.
“Race organizers across all races I’ve talked to or worked with are doing everything they can to mitigate risk,” says Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University and an ultrarunner who’s worked directly with the Boston Athletic Association and other organizations on race protocols. She also wrote a white paper on the topic for industry group Running USA.
Most will send participants this information by email. Check race websites or contact organizers if you don’t receive updates or have questions.
For instance, the New York Road Runners require at least one dose of vaccine or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours for those racing NYC; Chicago and Boston runners, meanwhile, must show proof of full vaccination or a negative result on a test administered within 72 hours of the race (in Boston, testing will be done at the expo).
Following these rules not only protects you from getting sick or infecting others, it also ensures you’ll be able to participate as planned. So make sure you add any additional items—such as scheduling testing or snapping a pic of your vaccine card—to your pre-race checklist.
Protect yourself when traveling.
Small, local races are by far the safest, since they don’t involve travel and minimize the number of unfamiliar people you’ll come into contact with, say Dr. Murphy-Aguilu and Kullar.
If you do choose to travel to a major marathon or other destination event, you can test yourself before you leave to make sure you’re not infectious, Nichols says. PCR tests return results within one to two days, while rapid antigen tests return results in minutes and can tell you if you’re currently capable of passing along an infection.
Testing is currently required before returning to the United States from international destinations, and may be required by the country you’re traveling to if you’re going abroad. (Fully vaccinated people going to London, for example, will need to book and take a test within two days of arriving; those who aren’t fully vaccinated must add a test in the three days before traveling.)
Though it’s not government-recommended for domestic travel unless you’re unvaccinated, it adds a layer of assurance regardless of your vaccination status, Nichols says.
On top of everything else, mask up. Government guidelines still require travelers to wear masks over their noses and mouths on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of transit, as well as in train stations, airports, and other hubs. And as always, monitor your symptoms; isolate and get tested if you develop a cough, sore throat, fever, or any other signs of COVID-19.
Make your trip to the expo a swift one.
Normally, Kullar likes to take her time at race expos, lingering over the gear and buying race swag. But she doesn’t advise that approach this fall. “Quicker is better in this sense,” she says. “Come in for a purpose—picking up your packet.”
Many indoor race expos require masks, but even if yours doesn’t, it’s a good idea to wear one. Kullar recommends a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask, or a KN95 mask. Even better: If your race has an option to have your packet mailed, take it.
Consider your mode of transit.
Your risk of exposure to COVID is lower if you can walk, drive, or take a rideshare or cab to the race start. “I’d wear a mask if sharing a ride with anyone that is unvaccinated or you don’t know,” Dr. Murphy-Aguilu says.
Of course, in some cases you’ll have to ride public transit—for instance, to the start lines in New York or Boston. If that’s the case, wear a mask, and crack windows if you can, such as on buses.
Keep your mask on in the start corral, and hang onto it for the finish line.
Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is rare, but possible in people who are crammed in tight spaces, Kullar says. While many races are offering staggered starts, larger spaces, or other ways to reduce crowding, it’s still a good idea to mask up while you wait to start (and in New York, for one, it’s required).
You’ll also want to mask up in porta-potty lines or in indoor restrooms, and make sure you wash your hands or use sanitizer afterward—always a good hygiene habit, regardless of the pandemic.
“Once you separate yourself from other runners, it is OK to take off your mask,” Kullar says. “But keep it for the finish area; that’s going to be another crowded setting.” You can tuck it in your fuel belt, pocket, or around your arm. If you happen to lose it, many races will provide a new one post-run.
It’s also all right to take a few breaths after the exertion of finishing to reach for it, Nichols says. Just aim to have it on by the time you’re in close contact with others (for instance, that gracious volunteer draping a medal around your neck).
Realize mid-race risk is low, and can be reduced even further.
Racers are usually spaced out and only briefly come in close contact with others, making the likelihood of spreading the virus on the course itself minimal, Nichols says.
Even if people are running in pace groups or packs, the risk is relatively low, especially if the race requires vaccination or testing. “But if you are personally concerned and you’re running a race and you want to minimize your possible exposure, then don’t run in a pack,” Nichols says. “Just run your own race.”
Boston Marathon runners should take special note. Normally, spectators at Wellesley College—around mile 13—offer screams and smooches to runners passing by. But this year, the race advises “refraining from kissing a stranger around the halfway mark of the Boston Marathon.”
One thing you probably don’t have to worry much about, though, is aid stations. Although it’s a good idea for volunteers to wear masks, the likelihood of the virus transmitting through food or drink is low. Nichols is glad to see that many races have stopped providing pre-packaged, individually wrapped items—they were unnecessary and also contributed to excess waste, she says.
Proceed with caution when it comes to after-parties.
No matter how your race goes, the safest way to celebrate—or commiserate—afterward is to do it outdoors. “You can also have a smaller celebration with just your COVID bubble people back home,” Kullar says.
Another option is rapid antigen tests for you and the people you’re hanging out with, Nichols says. If you came into contact with the virus during the race or events surrounding it, testing probably won’t pick it up until at least a couple of days later. But if everyone tests negative—especially if you’re vaccinated—the risk of spread is low, she says.
Monitor your health as you recover.
Racing hard—especially at long distances like the marathon—puts a strain on your body. In the hours and days afterward, it’s normal to feel run-down or even a bit sniffly.
“After the race, malaise and body aches are to be expected—but signs that should raise concern this is more than just post-race sniffles would be fever, sore throat, or cough,” Dr. Murphy-Aguilu says. “My feeling since the onset of the pandemic is to err on the side of caution and get tested if anything feels worse than your usual post-race recovery, or certainly if you have fever or new cough.”
While it’s important post-race, that advice applies just about anytime. If you have symptoms that could be COVID, isolate yourself, get tested, and definitely don’t run—doing so could prolong your illness or even cause long-term damage, Kullar says.
Even if you don’t have usual symptoms or test negative, it’s a good idea to take extra care of your body and immune system post-race, she advises. This includes eating nutritious foods, drinking a lot of water, and getting plenty of sleep.
And, finally, have fun.
Nichols offers one final word of advice to runners who are racing again and have taken precautions to reduce their risk of COVID: Remember why you’re out there in the first place. “There’s been so much thought and planning put into reducing risk, and also a lot of anxiety,” she says. “I worry that people are going to forget to enjoy it.”