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Running is ideal exercise during COVID-19. These apps and gadgets will keep you motivated

Running is a great way to de-stress during the pandemic, and these tools and tricks can help you make the best of it.

Running is ideal exercise during COVID-19. These apps and gadgets will keep you motivated
[Photo: Flo Karr/Unsplash; Daniel Korpai/Unsplash]

Running may be the ultimate exercise during the COVID-19 crisis. As a longtime runner, I know that it has a way of airing out one’s mind and providing some of the perspective that’s so easily lost during stressful times. And on a practical level, running gets you out of the house for an hour a day, and helps rev up your system without a trip to the gym. But showing up for my runs, mentally and physically, during coronavirus has required me to rethink a few things.

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Like many others, I’ve found it easy to slip into bad habits during this strange time, like overeating, over-tweeting, binge-watching, sleeping at irregular times and durations, and avoiding exercise. It’s easy to associate the world outside the door with danger, because that’s where the virus is.

But I’ve found that if I can get the running part right, those other problems become easier to deal with. Here are a few gadgets, apps, and advice on how to make the most of your running habit amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The advantages of the Apple Watch

For a few years now, I’ve been using an Apple Watch paired with AirPods Pro for running, and they remain very helpful tools.

The Watch was originally marketed as a sort of remote control for the iPhone, a thing you could glance at for notifications or to see who was calling. But just a year after the device’s debut, Apple began marketing the Watch as a fitness device, and in many ways that’s where the device still really shines.

My running data needs are pretty basic. I use the Exercise app on the Watch to time my runs and to track my pace and average heart rate. When I get back home, the information my Watch gathered about my run transmits to the Activity app on my iPhone. Because I usually wear the Watch every day, its helpfulness extends beyond just running, since it also helps me achieve my “stand,” “move,” and “exercise” goals.

The Watch’s usefulness as a running device also increased markedly with the 2016 release of the AirPods earbuds, which have become an ideal companion device. At the time, Apple was still working out the kinks: The Watch initially didn’t hold a lot of music in its firmware, and moving music from iTunes to the Watch (via the Watch app on the iPhone) was a painful experience. But the Watch gained a cellular connection in 2016, which made it possible to stream Apple Music playlists during runs. A year later, Apple added the ability to stream podcasts, or download them to the Watch before runs.

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More recent Watches also connect far more easily and logically to the new AirPods Pro, which came out in October 2019. Getting music loaded onto my Watch is still a hassle (iTunes!), but with the new AirPods Pro, there is no more confusion about which source device to connect to. They simply connect to the last device that pointed sound at them, and they stay linked to that device. So far, the AirPods Pro have stayed connected to the Watch during my runs far more reliably than the earlier AirPods.

For me, that made a huge difference. I’ve found that the audio I hear during runs is hugely important for motivation and for managing negative thoughts. I typically listen to podcasts with news commentary and analysis; it’s a chance to fill in the information gaps formed during the past 24 hours. But running during coronavirus has made me rethink what I listen to during runs. Now, my runs are now a time to completely shut out the news and avoid thinking about it.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

Finding a coach to help you get started

My biggest challenge as a runner is quieting my mind and keeping it out of the way. Like everybody, I have to deal with negative voices in my head that encourage me to stop. I begin thinking about fatigue, about how much ground I still need to cover, or about the next hill and how hard that’s going to be. Those thoughts tighten me up, and cause me to expend more energy than necessary. My breaths become shorter, shallower, and more frequent. Everything gets harder.

That’s why I lean on my virtual running coach, who talks in my ear and murmurs encouragement while I run. For beginners looking to get started, finding a coach who motivates you can be the key to staying committed.

Many fitness apps have coaching features, offering all kinds of coaches with different personalities and skill level specialties. You can have the voices of Olympic champion runners, motivation coaches, or mindfulness experts talk in your ear. The coach who works for me is Coach Chris Bennett from the Nike Run Club app. Bennett was captain of the track team at North Carolina and ran for the Olympic Development Nike Farm Team for five years. Coach Bennett never talks about presidents or pandemics—only about running.

One of Coach Bennett’s jobs is to keep me focused on things that help the running, not hinder it. He asks specific questions like, “Why are you running today?” before giving me a minute or so of silence while I run and think. Sometimes he reminds me that just showing up for a run might have positive effects that you haven’t thought about, like inspiring the walker you pass that she, too, can start running. The coach asks me to think about the list of reasons that I started running in the first place. During tough parts of the run, the coach might suggest that I count steps. All these things keep me from marking the time. An engaging podcast like “Serial” might serve the same purpose for some runners. But for me, a voice in my ear talking specifically about running works best.

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Beyond coaching features, some apps provide a sense of community—something that a number of studies have shown can have a powerful positive effect on running. Along with providing all sorts of metrics for tracking and mapping runs, apps like Strava and Fitbit offer a virtual support group of experts and other runners. The apps may offer support and information for people as they run during coronavirus, and, perhaps most importantly, they also can make runners accountable to a group for lacing up and hitting the pavement.

[Photo: Anna Shvets/Pexels]

To mask or not to mask

There’s an important question on many people’s minds right now when they contemplate going out for a run: How do you run while staying safe from the virus? Running on a treadmill at home is one way, but then you’re still inside and deprived of the benefit of open space, fresh air, and vitamin D from the sun.

I run in an urban environment in San Francisco, and even with the stay-at-home order, there’s still a lot of people around during the daytime. Luckily, experts say the likelihood of catching the virus while running is pretty low. Still, it’s not impossible.

“I think relatively little COVID-19 transmission would occur outdoors, except perhaps in large crowds,” University of Hong Kong professor of epidemiology and biostatistics Benjamin Cowling told the New York Times‘s Gretchen Reynolds. “Running is good for health, and transmission risk should be minimal, both for others, if a runner were infected, or for the runner, if they passed by infected people.” Cowling published a paper on the subject in Nature earlier this month.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask when outside, including when exercising. But when I tried to run with a mask, I found it uncomfortable and laborious to pull enough air through the mask. I made the personal choice to stop wearing one during runs, though I’m not recommending doing that for others.

Around my area I’ve seen an even split of runners who wear masks and those who don’t. I’ve heard experienced runners say that if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, you may need to simply slow down your pace so that you don’t require as much oxygen.

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To limit the number of people I encounter, I’ve also taken to running in the evenings. I’m not advising that everyone do this: The downside of night running is that it can be less safe than running during the day, depending on where you live. If you do decide to run at night, it’s a good idea to either wear only one earphone, or keep the volume low enough so you can hear sounds around you. It’s also smart to wear a reflective vest. Some people wear a headlamp to light up the path in front of them, or use the light from your smartphone if you decide to bring it with you.

For many people, work and life is stressful even during normal times, and now the stress is a few notches higher. Stress has a way of building up and lingering throughout the day, and I lose sight of the wider picture, and the fact that this situation, while scary, is temporary.

That’s why, for me, running is more important than ever. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that consistently helps me regain perspective.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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