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Is It Safe to Run in Groups Again?

As the country phases in the reopening of businesses amid COVID-19 concerns, runners are wondering if it’s time to reconnect with their running buddies.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but the nation is starting to emerge from stay-at-home orders. Naturally, runners are itching to get back to their running groups, though some are wondering if it’s safe to head out on the trails with others with social distancing rules still in place.

All along, public health experts have encouraged everybody to get outside for walks, hikes, and runs, either solo or with people with whom they live. In some states, officials have now given the green light to meet in groups of no more than 10 people, still encouraging everybody to stay at least six feet apart and wear face masks.

The guidance is different depending on where you live and the slow phase-in of group running requires a little research and patience. It’s important to note that local officials may have different rules than state or federal, based on prevailing conditions within a county.

In Boulder, Colorado, the professional running group coached by Joe Bosshard, founded with world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn, recently started meeting again after more than two months apart. They’re taking many precautions not only to ensure their own health and safety, but to make sure they aren’t infringing on others in the community.

Aisha Praught Leer, a member of the team and an Olympic steeplechaser representing Jamaica, said the group waited to get together several days after Boulder officials lifted stay-at-home orders during the first week in May.

“We didn’t want to scare people or come off as intimidating out on the trail or look like we weren’t being careful,” she said. “We’ll all meet in a big circle wearing masks, then we split up in partners and stagger ourselves so that six women aren’t charging down a trail together. We want to be mindful of other people.”

When the women would rather run all together, they’ll move to a dirt road outside of town, where it’s less likely they’ll encounter many people and if they do, they’ll have more space to get out of the way.

“I wouldn’t say we’re totally back to normal yet, but even just having one person to train with has made such a huge difference,” Praught Leer said. “It’s a good reminder that running with training partners is really easier than without. It’s been fun and special to be back with these women.”

A recent survey of 10,634 runners across the country, conducted by the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) earlier in May, showed that 60 percent of respondents are comfortable running with five or fewer people and 51 percent with 10 or fewer. More than that? The comfort level dips considerably—only 20 percent would run with up to 30 other people.

Jean Knaack, executive director of RRCA, said phasing in group running with social distancing rules in place is the first phase in reopening more opportunities in the months or year ahead.

“Our perspective for a while has been that group runs are the first step. We know that races are chomping at the bit to get back to business, but the reality is that clubs and training programs need to get 10 people together first and see how that goes,” she said. “I see the larger metropolitan areas are going to start there, which can become the model for smaller and mid-sized communities.”

The Chicago Area Runners Association and RRCA have published a “preparedness plan” for clubs to use in welcoming back members to organized events and track workouts. It also include diagrams for how to organize runner formations to keep proper distance between them. Some of the guidance includes:

  • Choosing meeting locations and routes that allow runners to practice social distancing, remaining six feet apart at all times
  • Considering whether a group’s presence may create backlash within the community, acknowledging that group gatherings of any size may not be welcomed at more popular spots in a town or city
  • Making sure that group size is in compliance with state and local policies
  • Asking participants to bring their own fuel and hydration and not share it with others
  • Discouraging spitting, snot rockets, high fives, handshakes, and hugs

Knaack notes that many runners are eager to return to their groups if the message from organizers is that they’re taking precautions to keep everybody as safe as possible.

“It’s about the safety of everybody, not individuals, and that’s what groups running and race directing has always been about,” Knaack said. “The safety of all may not comport with individual beliefs or opinions, so it’s key to put procedures in place for the safety of all and maintain that mentality.”