How to Get Back to Running In-Person Races Following a Year of COVID-19 Cancellations

Here’s what runners can expect as they return to starting lines
A smiling man running in a race wearing a blue running shirt and a tag with the number 58

Remember the last time you laced up your running shoes and toed the starting line with others for a race? It was… gosh, could it really have been that long ago?

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COVID-19 forced the cancellation of numerous in-person races in 2020 and the first months of this year. The calendar ahead, however, is beginning to fill with opportunities for 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons.

After so much time between races, however, you may feel a bit rusty while pinning on a race bib. Exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd, offers these tips for a safe and healthy return to racing.

Back to the beginning

Much of the advice Lawton offers runners training for their first race can apply to those coming back after a long layoff. Make sure to log the proper training; eat smart and stay hydrated; and get enough sleep ahead of the event.

Going back to the basics that led to previous finish lines will help you get reacquainted with old routines. This approach fits with a return to racing after any hiatus, whether it’s the COVID-19 shutdown or coming back from an injury, illness or pregnancy.

“It makes a difference where you’re starting from,” Lawton explained. “Give yourself time to readjust to racing again.”

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Setting realistic expectations

That personal record you set on a magical morning two years ago might not be the best target for your first race back. Set a goal that takes into account the amount of time between competitive races.

While virtual events filled the void for many runners during the COVID-19 shutdown and continue to offer challenging opportunities, they’re not quite the same as going head-to-head with fellow runners. Expect the intensity level to ratchet up.

“You’re going to be excited and the adrenaline will be flowing,” says Lawton. “But for most runners, it probably has been a long time since you pushed and tested your limits. Let yourself ease in.”

Be ready to adapt

Don’t expect races to look exactly like they did in 2019. COVID-19 remains a factor even as vaccination numbers rise and restrictions loosen for those who are fully vaccinated. (The CDC recently updated its recommendations for outdoor activities.)

Look for staggered starts and spaced-out corrals to replace the shoulder-to-shoulder starting chutes of the past. Masks may be required at starting lines and on the course, too. Water stops may be less common, with runners asked to carry their own hydration.

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Some races are even asking runners to refrain from spitting during the race to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure to other competitors. Check with your race for protocols specific to your event.

The best advice? Take the precautions you need to feel comfortable participating. Peak performance comes with peace of mind.

Enjoy the experience

After months of longing to run an in-person race, the wait is finally over. Savor the moment and soak in the energy and excitement that comes during those pulse-pounding moments before the starting horn sounds.

Then go find that finish line.

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