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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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