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Group Runs are Back and a Little Socially Awkward. Here’s How to Cope

We’ve been apart for more than a year, but participating in running club workouts can be good practice for reentering society.

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My running club’s practice didn’t start for another two hours, but I was already packing my bag on Tuesday afternoon. I could barely remember what to bring with me or how to dress for springtime in the mountains—a 70-degree afternoon quickly chills 40 degrees after the sun sets.

When was the last time I ran with another human? What will it be like to interact with 40 people in one evening? What should I do with my hands? (That was a “Talladega Nights” reference, for the uninitiated.)

Yes, more running groups are coming off the pandemic hiatus now. And while most of us can’t wait to share the miles with our buddies again, we also can’t ignore the social anxiety that might come with it. Distance runners are often a little awkward to begin with—a year in solitude does nothing to help our cause.

While we recognize that many groups never stopped training together, other organized clubs, teams, and crews were simply too big to gather safely. Thankfully, science has come a long way in a year, though—vaccines and more mitigation strategies are getting us closer to “normal” in some ways.

My group, Team Run Flagstaff, had to come up with a plan. For 11 years, we had met each Tuesday evening for a track workout, attracting up to 100 or more recreational runners of all ages and abilities. When coronavirus started spreading, we couldn’t have that many people sharing an enclosed space, nor could we impede on other public spaces with such a large group. So we waited it out, substituting our Tuesday tradition with less-desirable Zoom meetings for 12 months. But, recently, as the COVID-19 cases started to drop and our local vaccine rollout has proven successful, we decided it was time to run together again—with some precautions.

Related: How a Run and a Good Night’s Sleep May Affect Your Immune Response to the COVID-19 Vaccine

We asked that everybody wear masks before and after practice and whenever it wasn’t possible to leave enough space between each other; we broke into two groups of 20 runners each, who spaced themselves out all over the track. Intervals were based on time instead of distance—no need to crowd an inside lane or regather at the start after recoveries. All of the measures are temporary, but important for now.

After so much time away, it was challenging to figure out who was approaching the track underneath the face coverings. That didn’t take away from the joy of getting together again and reengaging as a community. We sometimes forget how important the camaraderie really is and how hard efforts are so much easier when shared.

Are you getting ready to join your club or crew again? If you’re feeling anxious, you’re not alone. Luckily we have some advice for getting back to the social side of running, shared by Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Expect unexpected emotions.

Maybe you never had any hint of social anxiety before the pandemic, but the thought of returning to group activities like running makes your heart race a little bit. That’s not unusual, says Maidenberg, whose research and practice focus on coping with stress and anxiety related to events like earthquakes, wildfires, terrorism, shootings, politics, and job loss.

“A year-long break came in unexpectedly, stressful for most of us in different ways, but one of them is separation from social groups,” he says. “That leads to anticipatory anxiety, which is the anticipation of negative judgement or anticipating not having much to say.”

Don’t remember how to make small talk? None of us really do. But we anticipate feeling awkward or embarrassed because of it.

“When we have anticipatory anxiety, we typically delay or avoid these situations,” Maidenberg says.

Get going as soon as you can.

That anticipatory stage is worse than anything you’ll experience at track practice. So, strike while the iron is hot—as soon as you get the urge to get back in, do it.

“Shorten that stage; don’t wait,” Maidenberg says.

Evaluate if it’s time to rejoin your group.

Not everybody is going to feel ready to resume all activities at the same time. Some people are more cautious. Others want to wait until fully vaccinated. And we don’t know what everybody has been through while surviving a pandemic. Some of our running friends may still find it too overwhelming to add activities to their routines.

How do we determine if we need to push ourselves out the door? When will we know that the time is right?

“The pace is very personal,” Maidenberg says. “Reasonably, one who has been vaccinated and is generally healthy is in the safest category. But I don’t know anybody who is going to jump right back in—many people will do so gradually and test the waters to see what’s comfortable.”

Realize you’re not alone in your fears.

Almost everybody will experience some degree of trepidation, but often what we are afraid of when we imagine what it will be like to resume some activities, like group runs, we gravitate to the worst-case scenarios. Maybe you’re out of shape or you won’t be able to keep up with your normal training partners. Or maybe you won’t know what to talk about. Or maybe everything will fall right back into place.

“Recognize that your feelings are what the majority of people feel,” Maidenberg says. “If you find yourself catastrophizing it, remember that your running group is actually more likely not to be a stressful experience. Once engaged, you probably won’t remember what you were anticipating.”

Lean on a friend.

So, you’re at home while your crew is out happily training together again. For a variety of reasons, you’re not ready, but at the same time you feel like you’re missing out. It’s hard to reconcile those conflicting emotions. But as you contemplate getting back out there, call a friend to give you the scoop. It might make you feel better.

“Talk to somebody who’s a couple of steps ahead of you, who maybe feels more courageous,” Maidenberg says. “Listen to how things are going. In general, a partner in the process is helpful. You can tell each other how you feel.”

Use it as practice.

Running is one of the easiest activities to start your societal reentry. There’s a structure to it and a planned activity, unlike a backyard BBQ or your first dinner party. If you need to shake off your social awkwardness, no better way to do it than over a couple of miles, when you’re not required to look somebody in the eyes.

“It’s a really good transitional activity, practicing doing something with other people,” Maidenberg says.

And whatever happens while you’re there, it’s probably appropriate and your emotions are valid.

“Try to avoid getting into a cycle about feeling bad about what we feel,” Maidenberg says. “Whatever we feel right now is proportionate to what we’ve lived through. And it’s helpful to remind ourselves that it’s normal.”