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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on runners around the world

A woman seen from behind is running in a park.

You probably have experienced it yourself, or you may have read headlines like this one: «Running is enjoying a boom because of the coronavirus pandemic». And yes, it’s true. Gyms were closed. Spin classes and boot camps had been canceled. People were stuck at home for most of the day for a long time. So running has seen a boom during the coronavirus pandemic. But what about the overall statistics? Did people run more during the pandemic?

They didn’t. Leonardo A. Afonseca, Renato N. Watanabe, and Marcos Duartecorresponding from the department of Biomedical Engineering at the Universidade Federal do ABC, Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, investigated possible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on long-distance running training. Their study came to an astonishing conclusion: «In 2020, compared with 2019, in total there was a 3.6% decrease in the number of athletes running, a 7.5% decrease in the distance and 6.7% in the duration of running training.» For their study the researchers analyzed 10,703,690 records of running training during 2019 and 2020, from 36,412 athletes from around the world. The records were obtained through web scraping of a large social network for athletes on the internet. A potential long-distance runner was defined as a user of the social network who had a record of running at least one of the six World Marathon Majors by 2019.

The wide variations in long-distance running training throughout 2020 are likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that is not a contradiction, since we must draw a distinction between those new to running and those who already were runners when the pandemic began. «However, two recent studies, which specifically investigated running, reported increased running volume during the pandemic (DeJong, Fish & Hertel, 2021; Chan et al., 2022). Based on data from tens of millions of users, the companies Fitbit and Strava, which monitor user’s physical activity using their own trackers, smartphones, or smartwatches with accelerometers or GPS, reported on their blogs that they observed a decline in physical activity in the first half of 2020 compared with 2019 (Fitbit, 2020; Strava, Inc 2020). Strava did see a general increase in physical activity when considering the entire period analyzed in 2020 (until the month of October), but they also included new users in 2020 in their comparison (Strava, 2020). That is, this increase in physical activity could simply be because more people have joined the Strava app.»

So while more people started running based on the aforementioned reasons, established runners decreased their training. «The wide variations in long-distance running training throughout 2020 are likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As for the total volume, the observed decreases of up to 7.5% in the outcome variables related to running training in 2020 could also be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, but other factors such as injury, illness or lack of interest, may also have contributed to these decreases.» If you want to dig deeper, you can find the published paper online at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

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