The Paris marathon is postponed, Tokyo marathon was limited to elite runners and wheelchair athletes, and the mass participation in other spring marathons is in jeopardy. As of March 2nd the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) have stated that the famous Boston Marathon will proceed as planned on 20th April 2020. The situation unfolding with coronavirus is above all a human tragedy. But what do runners need to know about coronavirus? It’s important to remember that in the age of information its so easy to be distracted, swayed and influenced by articles, statements and opinions that lack evidence, rigour and analysis. The 2019-nCoV strain of coronavirus that began to spread in China in December 2019 is thought to have originated in snakes or bats (Ji et al., 2020). It has now reached most corners of the globe with symptoms similar to the common cold or flu. But it’s not the first viral outbreak of this decade, in 2014 in west Africa alone 11,000 died after falling victim to Ebola.
In the context of this coronavirus outbreak does running help or hinder the body’s ability to fight off infections? Many regular runners will have heard from well-meaning friends, spouses, parents and work colleagues that strenuous running dampens the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to pathogens and illness. It has long been commonly believed that endurance exercise like marathon running may suppress the immune system, a myth that possible began three decades ago in the 1980s when studies began to report an increased incidence of infection symptoms in athletes in the days or weeks after an event. But these studies relied on self-diagnosed symptoms from runners, and these sniffles weren’t confirmed to be viral infections in a laboratory setting. Follow up research since has confirmed that the immune systems of runners and other endurance athletes rather than being over burdened by exercise, may in fact be bolstered. The evidence now suggests that a physically active lifestyle diminishes the risk of contracting a range of communicable diseases including viral and bacterial infections (Campbell and Turner, 2018). So it is safe to run or complete strenuous exercise and it won’t increase the risk of contracting the coronavirus. But other factors associated with running a race or competing in an event may pose risks. Travelling long distances, sleep disturbances caused by travel or unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, poor or inadequate diet, getting cold and wet or psychological stress of competition have all been linked to an increased risk of developing an infection. These are all things that should be acknowledged , but should not lead to the avoidance physical activity. If all else fails we could take some inspiration from Pan Shancu, a Chinese amateur marathoner who ran 31 miles in 4 hours 48 minutes whilst in self-isolation by completing 6,250 laps around his living room!
Campbell, J. P. and Turner, J. E. (2018) ‘Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan’, Frontiers in Immunology, 9, pp. 648.
Ji, W., Wang, W., Zhao, X., Zai, J. and Li, X. (2020) ‘Cross-species transmission of the newly identified coronavirus 2019-nCoV’, Journal of Medical Virology, 92(4), pp. 433-440.