Outdoor running surges in popularity during the pandemic

SWEATY SMILES: Members of the Highland Brewing Co. Run Club returned to their regular Wednesday evening runs at the end of June. Members run at their own pace from the brewery before enjoying a socially distant post-workout beer. Photo by Joanne Wilcox, courtesy of the Highland Brewing Co. Run Club

Gyms are still closed. Weights are hard to find. Indoor cycling, CrossFit and Zumba classes feel like a relic of a bygone era. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, running is making a resurgence. From people who found running as a way to get out of the house and stay active, to die-hard marathoners who were training for a spring race when stay-at-home orders went in place, the pandemic is prompting people to reevaluate their relationship with running. 

It’s exciting to see the sport take off, says Mark Driscoll, the track and cross-country coach at Carolina Day School and a leader of the Asheville Running Collective racing team. 

“A lot of people have rediscovered or taken up running — I’ve seen it,” Driscoll says. “Each person is totally different, and it’s been interesting to see how people are shifting around priorities, but the reactions are so positive.”

Physical, mental benefits

The health benefits of running could fill an entire book, says Aubri Rote, chair of UNC Asheville’s Department of Health and Wellness. Running improves the health of the mitochondria, organelles frequently remembered from science classes as the “powerhouse of the cell,” Rote says. Aside from producing the vast majority of the body’s energy, healthy mitochondria are linked to a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Despite a lack of data on how physical activity improves immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, there is evidence that regular physical exercise can lead to lower rates of acute respiratory illness and a shorter duration and intensity of symptoms, according to a July article published in Clinical and Experimental Medicine.

Over and over, Rote says, running and other forms of endurance exercise have been shown to improve people’s self-reported mental health. Running can help manage stress, boost mood and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Personally, Rote adds, running gives her a few moments during the day to take for herself. 

“You get the chance to just be, and you are forced to be more present or else you might trip!” she says. “For those folks who run with a buddy, this can be a great way to get quality time with someone you care about.”

New runners join in

There’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of customers at Jus’ Running, says store manager Luke Paulson. He groups new runners into two categories: the former gymgoers who are turning to outdoor running in lieu of group fitness classes and weights, and former runners with free time on their hands to get back into the sport. 

“As an everyday runner, you get to know a lot of familiar faces out there,” Paulson notes. “But during COVID, I’ve seen a lot of new people running through my neighborhood or running on my way to work.”

Scott Socha, owner of Foot RX in South Asheville, is seeing more people looking for new shoes, socks and orthotics. At its core, running is an individual sport, he says — with an abundance of trails and parks, anyone can lace up their shoes and find a new hobby.

“The most exciting part for me is seeing this paradigm shift where people are putting themselves first and their wellness first,” Socha says. “Mathematically, I think most people will come in contact with COVID-19 at some point in their life, so people are trying to be super prepared so that your body is at the best immune system and you’re the healthiest you can be.” 

Local groups adjust

Before COVID-19, members of the Asheville Running Collective would meet at the Wedge Brewing Co. every Thursday night for a group run. In March, the group paused the weekly meetups for the first time since its creation in 2012, Driscoll explains.

With races and weekly meetups canceled for the foreseeable future, the Asheville Running Collective wanted to do something to add value to the local running community, Driscoll says. Enter the Ghost Race Grand Prix, a six-week virtual run challenge where members were tasked with running a specific segment of a route around town. Anyone who submitted proof of their run was entered into a raffle; winners received prizes from local businesses. 

“It was a really fun way to put our energy into something positive when everything shifted,” Driscoll says.

The Maggots, Jus’ Running’s track workout group, has been on pause since March, Paulson says. However, the store’s pub run, which generally attracts a smaller crowd, started meeting at Archetype Brewing for socially distant runs in early August. So far, turnout is lower, he says, but a number of new runners have joined the group. 

Jerad Crave hasn’t run with a group since March. He’s a member of the Asheville Running Collective and a local cycling club, but right now, he’s staying connected with the running community by moderating the Asheville Running Facebook group. With more than 2,000 members, the group helps runners feel like they’re still part of a larger community — even if they’re running solo every day, he explains.

Crave misses the camaraderie of joining friends for a run. But running helps keep the pandemic in perspective. It gives him control over something and a chance to be outside. 

“Running or walking or just being outside is so vital to our well-being,” Crave says. “Hopefully, it’s not just a temporary change for the people using that outlet. Maybe it’ll be a lifestyle change that will help transform our society into a healthier, more mentally strong society that will progress forward.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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