Tensions between runners and pedestrians have soared during the coronavirus lockdown as pavements became battlegrounds for a new culture war.
Walkers are complaining that joggers are hogging paths and putting them at risk of infection as they pant their way past.
But runners face our own dangers – just as we could theoretically infect pedestrians, those passersby could infect us, as we run along, inhaling deeply.
The Times says it is ‘inevitable’ that tensions between the ‘two tribes’ will ‘boil over’ and The Guardian says there is now a ‘battle for our pathways’.
In short, runners are in danger of replacing cyclists as everyone else’s pet hate. With divisions widening, it feels like a manifesto is needed so we can run safely, considerately and responsibly – a highway code for running in the coronavirus era.
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Don’t suddenly whizz past a pedestrian
It’s always been scary when a runner appears out of the blue. There is now the added fear that such a runner could be passing on a potentially deadly virus as they pant past. So it’s never been more important that runners don’t suddenly stomp past people who didn’t hear them coming.
To avoid alarm and the risk of infection, when you pass someone give them as wide a berth as you safely can, and don’t return on to the path until you are at least 10 metres ahead.
‘Infected droplets can stay in your slipstream, which has low pressure so they hover a bit longer in it,’ explains Bert Blocken, professor at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands and KU Leuven in Belgium, who specialises in wind engineering and sports aerodynamics.
One of the joys of running is that it can take you into a hypnotic state. A study I quote in my book, Running: Cheaper Than Therapy, found that more than half of runners experience a trance-like experience as they pound the pavements.
Running can be blissful but during the pandemic it’s very important to stay alert as you trot.
If you accidentally bump into a pedestrian you put both of you at the risk of infection and the health service can’t afford to treat unnecessary injuries from runners who switched off and tripped over an obstacle.
Take it easier
The public is anxious about infection and vulnerable groups are taking their first steps back outside after months of shielding. Going at a faster pace often seems to make runners less considerate and more unsettling for those they dash towards.
You might feel like a heroic athlete but in these scary times you can look like a speeding bullet to others. Is it really worth frightening other people to make sure we complete our 5k in less than 20 minutes or beat our 10k personal best?
Time your run sensibly
During recent heatwaves a lot of runners took to setting out before dawn or in the late evening, so they could run in cooler conditions. Running at those times during the pandemic is a good idea too.
If it’s possible for you to run when the streets are less busy, do that and avoid the crowds and the problems they bring.
Don’t spit or snot
There’s no polite way of putting it: some people like to spit and fire out snot bombs when they run. This habit is ‘very dangerous,’ says professor Blocken, particularly when it involves mucus, which can have a ‘high dose’ of the virus.
‘If someone is running or walking close behind you and you spit our saliva or mucus then you are putting them at risk,’ says professor Blocken.
And look, it’s also a really unpleasant habit at the best of times, so maybe runners could cut it out completely.
Be the change you want to see
At the heart of the new culture war is a simple question: should the onus be on runners or pedestrians to make space? But what we all want in the end is a world where everyone is considerate. So don’t get caught up in the power games – just take a lead and be the nice one.
Communicate your intention
If you are heading for a direct confrontation with a pedestrian, signal clearly who should move where. It’s better to communicate clearly what needs to happen rather than starting a game of chicken.
Likewise, if you are about to run past someone you could (calmly) call out “passing on your left” so they know you’re approaching.
Don’t touch anything
The chances of you inadvertently touching your face during running are high, so wherever possible, avoid touching any door handles, traffic light buttons or other shared objects while you are out.
Social distancing advice has ruled out running with people from other households but as we do start to run with other people, take into account that any of them may be infected without knowing it.
‘You can run next to other people at a two-metre distance but it would be wise not be in their slipstream,’ says professor Blocken.
Some joggers worry that the deep breathing involved with running puts them at greater risk of infection. Relax, the risk of transmission in the open air without close direct contact with another person is still relatively low and early research suggests that running doesn’t make a huge difference.
‘The amount of droplets you will get from another person would be more or less the same whether you are inhaling normally, or deeply and intensively,’ says Professor Blocken. ‘You might inhale them more deeply into your respiratory system, but on the other hand, runners are generally in better shape and with a better immune system.
‘I think having a better immune system is more important than how deeply you’re breathing.’
So keep calm and enjoy your run.
Running: Cheaper Than Therapy by Chas Newkey-Burden is out now. (Bloomsbury, £9.99)
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