RUNNING THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

Tekst: Ronja Helder, Master’s degree in English language and linguistics
Illustration: Vicotria Skogsletten Dalen

As the world we knew changed almost overnight and society shut down, some
people ran, some started running and some stopped running. How has running
changed during lockdown, and what has it provided for those who continued?

I have been an avid runner for years, but only started taking it more seriously after moving back to Norway after a year abroad in the summer of 2019. Then, when COVID-19 hit Norway in March 2020 and society locked down over-night, running became an outlet for stress, a time when I could switch everything off for just a little bit and forget about the state of the world. But only months later, I got stuck with an injury and had to take consi – derable time off running to let my body heal, and with that I could feel my mental health beginning to dwindle and my body feeling weak and without much energy to do anything. Now, more than ever before, I began to realize how important running is for my well-being, mental and physical.

While the pandemic and resulting lockdown created more time to be physically active for some people, it has had the opposite effect for others. With gyms closing, many people lost their means of getting physical exercise. So, what happened to running during the pandemic? It has been dubbed ”the world’s easiest sport” by many, as no speci – fic equipment or skills are needed to go running, making it possible for almost everyone to do it. Because of this it was a form of exercise perfectly fit for a time when gyms and sport facilities were closed, and we were not allowed to gather in groups larger than a few people.

In Norway we were fortunate enough to not have a curfew or limitations on going outside, but not everyone has had this privilege. In the spring of 2020, a new trend of running emerged on the internet — lacking the possibility to go outside to run, people started running in their living rooms, on their balconies and in their back yards. And they weren’t just running short distances, they were running half-marathons, marathons, even entire ultras. An extra element of mental endurance was added to the physical task of running a long distance as people ran back and forth, round and round in a small space.

Most of the people participating in these challenges were already running prior to the pandemic, but what about the rest of the population? Did more people start running during the pandemic? A survey done by World athletics and Nielsen Sports found that 13% of the runners participating had begun running after April 2020 and the majority of them reported that COVID-19 was part of the reason why they started running.

Now, more than ever before, I began to realize how important running is for my well-being, mental and physical

Of runners who were already running before the pandemic 22% reported that the were now running more frequently than previously, while 35% said they ran less than they did pre-pandemic. Different levels of restrictions in different countries have likely made it more of a challenge for many to be able to continue running as they did before and with races being cancelled their motivations may have diminished. Others have clearly made use of their free time to run more.

During such a trying time for the whole world, running has become a lifeline for many, as has it provided some sort of stability and a break from everything happening

In Norway many people found themselves running or doing other types of exercise outside, which raised its own issues. Soon complaints were found around the internet about heavy breathing, selfish runners who did not care about the rest of society in a time we all should be doing our part to prevent this virus from spreading. However, unless people go running together in large groups, they keep their distance, and being in the big outdoors drastically reduces chances of spreading disease. It should be encouraged to go outside, get some fresh air and getting some exercise, rather than being stigmatized.

As races were cancelled one by one, people had to find other ways to motivate themselves, and people started chasing FKTs (Fastest Known Time) everywhere, setting their time on new routes or chasing the times of others on already existing routes. Because this generally required little more than oneself and some means of tracking the run, it became a social distancing-friendly alternative to races with tens, or even hundreds or thousands of participants. Anyone can find a route that bears some sort of significance, to themselves or perhaps the local community, and challenge themselves to set the fastest time.

But how has all this running affected people’s mental health during the pandemic and lockdown? It is well known that exercise generally has a positive effect on mental health as well as physical health, but the lockdown has presented new challenges most people never have had to deal with previously. A study done by Asics, surveying 14,000 people from 12 different countries, found that nearly 80% of the runners participating used running as a way to maintain their mental well-being during lockdown.

During such a trying time for the whole world, running has become a lifeline for many, as has it provided some sort of stability and a break from everything happening. Getting regular exercise helps reduce stress and can in turn improve sleep quality, bringing more regularity into our daily lives when everything we knew was turned upside down almost overnight.

Fortunately, I have recovered from injury and am building up again for new races now that society is gradually opening up again and we are getting more normality in our lives. I am endlessly grateful that I have so many great places I can run just minutes from my doorstep and that I am able to do what I do on a regular basis — being able to feel the wind in my hair as I cruise along the trails and breathing fresh air. This pandemic and lockdown have been incredibly difficult for many, but running has made it at least a little more bearable.