How to Return to Running After COVID

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Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past few months? Or had symptoms but not been tested?

Or maybe you were asymptomatic but your lifestyle just changed to the point where your schedule got thrown off or you suddenly had less time in your day to dedicate to running.

Either way, if you’ve missed a few weeks of running due to the pandemic, you’re probably eager to get back into it.

You may be wondering how to return to running after COVID in a safe way. After all, there’s really a lot of conflicting information out there about this illness, so how do you really know you’re doing the right thing?

Here’s our post-COVID advice. However, we strongly recommend discussing this with your doctor before getting back into any kind of exercise or training routine!

What Does the Research Say?

Despite the multitude of ongoing research about COVID-19, we still haven’t quite managed to nail down much solid info about this virus.

Although we know roughly what it does to the body when we have it, there’s still little info out there about the long-term effects.

However, there has been some research that has yielded interesting conclusions. Here’s some of what early-stage COVID research suggests about both the effects of the virus on activity and what it may mean for returning.

Injury

A very recent study indicated that runners who have had the COVID-19 virus also showed a higher incidence of injury.

It’s not by a huge amount, but it is significant. Of 1435 participants who didn’t get COVID, 21.3% suffered injuries in the prescribed period of time. Out of the 123 who did have COVID, 30.9% reported having an injury in the same period of time.

While we can’t deny that there’s a significant difference between the size of the two groups, it does bring up an interesting question about whether running with COVID is bad for your muscles as well as your organs.

If you’ve been unlucky enough to suffer both the virus and an injury, it’s a clear sign that your body isn’t in the position to return to the same activity level.

You may need to ease yourself into it by drastically lowering the time or intensity of your workouts, until you build up the strength to run at the same level. It may take time, but if you try to push through you could be prone to more serious injuries.

Endurance

This study had a look at the finishing times of marathons and ultramarathons during the pandemic. Although it doesn’t specify anything about runners having had COVID or not, it’s not hard to understand that COVID infections have obviously had something to do with it.

The research showed two interesting pieces of information. One, the number of finishes in these kinds of events decreased. That means more people were dropping out before they reached the finish line, despite having trained for these races.

Two, in those that did finish, the finish times declined noticeably. So, even those who were feeling strong enough to complete the race didn’t hit the times that should have been pretty standard.

Interestingly, one of the overwhelmingly common symptoms across the range of COVID variants is unusual, extreme fatigue, which could be part of the reason for these results.

This fatigue could take weeks or even months to dissipate. Even if you had milder COVID, you may notice that your energy is noticeably lacking when you get back into your running.

Be patient and try not to push yourself too much in this situation. Overdoing it when you’re already weaker could lead to a much longer recuperation period being needed!

Cardiovascular Health

One of the worries about long-term COVID effects is how it affects the cardiovascular system. Typically, patients who spent time in the hospital due to COVID-19 infection are prone to cardiac injury, such as myocarditis.

It’s not clear whether or not this occurs in patients with milder symptoms, but there’s no denying that any kind of illness has an effect on the cardiovascular system. Between the inflammation in the lungs and an elevated heart rate (which is natural during illness), the cardiovascular system is compromised.

This makes quite a big difference in how quickly and easily you can get back into your running. There are also different guidelines for high-school athletes versus, for example, masters athletes.

We highly recommend getting a check-up from your doctor if you’re concerned about your heart health before you get back into running. Whether or not you had any chesty symptoms during your illness, this is an area of health you really shouldn’t mess with.

COVID Toes

Yes, COVID toes is a thing! COVID can affect the circulation, especially in the toes as they’re far away from the heart. In runners, this can manifest as bruise-like dark marks on your toes.

It seems to be a little more common in runners who are prone to developing black toenails. However, it could show up in anyone, so keep an eye on your toes!

However, with all that being said, it’s important to understand the difference between long COVID and short COVID in order to know how best to get back into your running.

Difference Between Long and Short COVID

Most people who get COVID recover fairly well and move on, seemingly without any long-term effects. However, there are a handful of people who, regardless of the severity of their COVID infection, have long-term complications.

Technically, there’s no specific definition for long COVID. But it’s generally accepted that a person has long COVID when their symptoms continue for 12 weeks or more after their initial infection (and can’t be explained by something else).

Usually, it’s not the small, annoying symptoms like a scratchy throat or stuffy nose that hang around. The symptoms that usually stick with you during long COVID include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or heart palpitations, memory problems, and joint pain.

As you can imagine, these particular symptoms aren’t easy to ignore when you’re running. Those with long COVID will definitely have a harder time getting back to their usual activity levels and will need to take it much easier getting back into it.

Safely Returning to Running After COVID

Although those with short COVID will find it easier to get back into their physical activity, it’s not impossible for those who have longer persisting symptoms.

Here’s what you should be considering if you’re planning on getting back into it.

When?

There are plenty of guidelines out there, which can actually be a little overwhelming. How do you know what’s right and what’s not? What happens if you do the wrong thing?

Of course, every person is different, which just makes it more difficult to nail down exact answers. But ultimately, you’ll need to pay close attention to your body, your feelings, and your own reactions to physical exercise.

The general recommendation is to wait 10 to 14 days after the last day you had symptoms. So, if you started feeling ill on the 10th of the month and noticed your last symptoms on the 20th, you should be able to get back to exercise safely on the 1st to the 4th of the following month.

If you aren’t there yet, you don’t need to be completely stagnant for that period of time. Try walking or a light cycle, just enough to get your muscles moving but not get your heart rate up much.

How?

Slowly! As tempting it may be, don’t just jump right back into your workout or running program where you left off. Your body has undergone a bit of a trauma, and it needs to be eased back into things.

Aim to start at half the time or intensity you were doing before. If it feels too easy, that’s a good sign. Increase it by 50% the next time, so you’re exercising at 75% of what you used to be.

So, for example, if you used to run 10 miles every day, aim to start with a more chilled 5-mile jog. If that feels good, try a 7.5-mile run the next day.

From there, increase your pace, intensity, distance, or time by 5 to 10% per week until you’re back at your usual performance. We know, we know… It’s going to be slow.

But there’s still not much information out there about how exercise affects the heart, lungs, and other organs after COVID, so we strongly recommend taking it easy and spending the extra time getting your heart used to the exercise again.

We do recommend avoiding HIIT training until you’re back to your normal running routine and haven’t experienced any adverse symptoms for at least 2 weeks.

When to Stop Exercising

Pay particular attention to your body and how it reacts to exercise. If you’ve been off for a good few weeks or months, you may notice that your muscles take a bit of time to get back into the swing of things.

You may feel muscle pains or joint pain as a result of your lack of exercise over the past few weeks. This should resolve itself pretty quickly, especially if you take care with recovery procedures.

However, there are certain warning signs that you should definitely take note of. If you experience:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling faint or dizzy

… Then you most likely need a bit more time to rest. We strongly advise heading straight to your doctor for a checkup if you experience any of these symptoms while you’re running.

Tips for Running After COVID

If you’re feeling good enough to get back into your running schedule, then we recommend taking extra precautions to prevent reinfection. Just because you’ve had it once (or more), doesn’t mean you can’t get it again!

Here’s what we suggest when getting back into your running routine after COVID.

Start Slow

As we mentioned above, diving back into your workout routine with gusto could be damaging. As frustrating as it may be, starting at 50% of your usual intensity and working your way back up over a few weeks is the safest way to get back to your usual performance.

This also minimizes your chances of being struck down by injury in these first few weeks of getting back into your routine. As research has shown, those who have been affected by COVID are more prone to injury, so slow and steady is the better choice.

Don’t Be Afraid to Adjust

If you need to stay away from running for a few more weeks, that doesn’t mean you need to become a couch potato. Adjusting your type of workout could be the key, so you can stay active without overdoing it.

Walking instead of running, or some light cycling or weight lifting are good ideas. Choose an exercise that doesn’t get your heart rate up as much but still gets your muscles working.

Take Steps to Prevent Reinfection

As annoying as it can be, running with a mask on can help protect you from reinfection. You could choose to use a neck gaiter or balaclava if you don’t want to use a regular mask.

Or, you could invest in a rebreather mask, which should help you to breathe a little easier while you’re exercising. Either way, keeping your nose and mouth covered is a good idea, unless you’re out on the trail when nobody else is in sight.

Speaking of, it might be a good idea to change your running route. Hitting the trails where it’s more open and has fresher air is a better choice than running through a crowded, polluted urban area.

Let People Know Where You Are

When you go for a run, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. This might sound trivial, but it helps for someone to have an idea of your whereabouts if something does happen to you on the run.

We all want to think that we’ll be just fine when we get back to our exercise. But the reality is that when the body’s taken a hit of this magnitude, and with a virus that scientists aren’t sure of the long-term effects of, you can’t take any chances.

Learn Some First Aid

It’s always worthwhile to know basic first aid. Rather know it and never use it, than not know it and need it!

Brush up on your first aid so you can a) notice when something is wrong, and b) know what to do in the case of an emergency.

Keeping your phone or a kind of panic button handy is a great idea so you can get hold of emergency services or a loved one if necessary.

Summary

Figuring out how to return to running after COVID isn’t really a black-and-white thing. Every person is different, but no matter how you feel at the time, it’s super important that you don’t rush back into training or expect to pick up right where you left off.

Ease into it, listen to your body, and commit to doing it right – even if it does take a bit more time than you were hoping for!

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AUTHOR

Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.