Returning to Running Post-Lockdown
I’m not sure there’s a single aspect of our lives that hasn’t changed in the last year and exercise is no exception. Without the joys of running with friends or the adventure of traveling to find new trails many of us have seen a dramatic reduction in our mileage. The idea that the your country might start opening up again is both a feeling of excitement but also one of apprehension. If you’ve become more inactive during lockdown or have had Covid-19 infection then here’s a guide to getting back to the sport we love so much.
How does running effect the immune system?
I can’t really talk about returning to exercise post-infection without mentioning our immune system first. The relationship between exercise and immunity is extremely complex but put very simply:
- Moderate regular exercise improves our immune function and general health
- Prolonged high intensity exercise may temporarily reduce immune function and increase infection risk
This relationship between immune function and exercise may not feel relevant to the everyday runner but it’s actually something to bear in mind in the midst of a pandemic.
Some general tips:
- Aim to keep high intensity sessions under two hours (ideally under one)
- Vary training load and space out high intensity sessions to allow optimal recovery between periods of high exertion
When should I return to sport if I’ve had Covid-19?
When we come down with a cold most of us will happily trade a few days of running for a few days on the sofa and be pretty confident knowing when we feel ready to lace up our running shoes again.
Covid is more complex as the symptoms experienced by infected individuals can vary widely and as a result it might be more difficult to decide when you should return to running.
Here’s a breakdown of the most up to date advice:
- If you had severe infection (i.e. required hospitalisation or had chest pain) then discuss your return to activity with a healthcare professional.
- If you had symptomatic Covid-19 infection then start a phased return to exercise once you have been symptom-free for at least 7 days.
- If your Covid symptoms are ongoing discuss this with a healthcare professional. It is now recognised that up to 1 in 10 people will experience symptoms for greater than 12 weeks
If you have Covid-19 be realistic about your expectations. Even with mild infection many people will feel unwell for 7-10 days. It’s then a further 7 days before you should consider returning to exercise. This return should be phased, only reaching your baseline level of exercise after a minimum of one month. Recovery takes time!
How can I gradually return to running?
So whether you’ve been unwell or you’ve reduced your running volume because of lockdown, how can you return to running in a safe way? The simplest answer is to listen to your body…but here’s a few more tips!
1. Physical activity and sport are two different things
Returning to exercise doesn’t mean stepping out the door and completing a run at the same level you used to. Lots of activities add to your exercise levels, benefit your physical and mental wellbeing, and help improve your fitness ready to return to running:
- Housework or gardening
- Stretching or balance exercises
2. The most important part of fitness is recovery
You don’t improve your fitness from a training session, you improve your fitness by recovering properly afterwards. Important parts of recovery to consider include:
- Sleep: ideally 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night
- Energy: a sufficient calorie intake to meet training needs
- Nutrition: a balanced diet to avoid deficiencies, the NHS also recommend taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily in the winter months
3. Take the pressure off by using perceived effort rather than speed
Having a structured session can be a good way to improve fitness and add variety to your running. However, heading straight back for a tough track workout might not be wise! If you’ve got some work to do before reaching your baseline fitness why not swap speed goals for relative perceived effort (RPE)? For example, instead of running 5km at an 9min/mile, try running at RPE13 (‘somewhat hard’ effort). This still allows you to set goals during your workouts whilst working within the limits of your body’s current fitness level.
Here's to the return of our global running community! Happy Running!
- Simpson RJ, Campbell JP, Gleeson M, Krüger K, Nieman DC, Pyne DB, Turner JE, Walsh NP. Can exercise affect immune function to increase susceptibility to infection?. Exercise immunology review. 2020 Mar 10;26:8-22.
- Gleeson M. Effects of exercise on immune function. Sports Sci. Exch.2015;28:1-6.
- Salman D, Vishnubala D, Le Feuvre P, Beaney T, Korgaonkar J, Majeed A, McGregor AH. Returning to physical activity after covid-19. bmj. 2021 Jan 8;372.
- Office for National Statistics.The prevalence of long COVID symptoms and COVID-19 complications. 2020.