Despite the soft re-openings of most states, just getting out of bed feels like a struggle. For others, it seems like the perfect time to run a marathon in their garden. Or break the 100-mile treadmill world record. Or even run 262 miles on a four-mile stretch of neighborhood.
It might seem insane to challenge yourself in this way during a pandemic—especially since some people would argue that intense exercise suppresses the immune system. While there is some research from the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology that shows sustained and prolonged high-intensity exercise can negatively impact your immune system, a review of the scientific literature published in Frontiers in Immunology debunked any long-term effects.
Another 2019 review from the Journal of Sport and Health Science actually found that being physically active makes you less vulnerable to getting sick, and a more recent study published in the Exercise Immunology Review determined that regular exercise benefits immunity—even in (but especially in) isolation since the highest risk factor is exposure.
Whatever its effects on your immune system, running—in normal times—is a coping mechanism, a form of stress relief, and a way to pass the time for a lot of people. So even in the face of social-distancing restrictions, why would that change during a pandemic?
For a lot of runners, “racing is a big part of their identity,” explains Lenny Wiersma, Ph.D., a professor of sports psychology at California State University in Fullerton who’s worked with ultramarathoners. “During times when we are not able to do that which defines us, there are an awful lot of people trying to find a way to fill that void.” The environment may change, but that desire to prove you can do something doesn’t change.
Without races to train for, many runners can feel a little…adrift. “Having a sense of purpose is very inherent in a lot of people,” says Carla Meijen, Ph.D., a sport and exercise psychologist at St. Mary’s University in London with a focus on the psychology of endurance performance. These challenges provide structure within your training and an outlet for your training, both of which can prevent overtraining and burnout.
Running an endurance race in a non-race environment—one that’s not exactly conducive to distance running, for that matter—is also an opportunity to challenge yourself in a way that’s more than just a physical, Meijen adds. “It’s actually a really nice opportunity for people to then practice their psychological skills,” she explains. “You’re removing external distractions, so you can really focus on proper form, relaxation and breathing techniques, motivational self-talk, and visualization that will get you to the finish.”
Having a goal like this can also give you a sense of control, something that can be especially helpful in times of upheaval or uncertainty. “Right now, when we think about the current restrictions and when we think about the future, the anxiety people experience comes from thinking about their lack of control,” Wiersma explains.
Committing to pace, say, 26.2 miles on your 38-by-25-foot apartment rooftop brings your attention to the immediate; the only thing you have to worry about for those hours is putting one foot in front of the other and powering through your discomfort. “What looks to be completely unreasonable to an outsider may seem perfectly reasonable for someone who’s just trying to do what they can to exert some control in the moment,” says Wiersma.
Running an endurance race on your patio or in your backyard is a choice (maybe one that some people disagree with, but still a choice). “The key thing is someone who decides to do this feels that they have that sense of control over it, and that will probably make them feel stronger,” says Meijen. And being able to persevere through something as seemingly pointless and difficult as running laps on your balcony will likely make you feel more capable of facing all the other tough stuff people are dealing with right now, she adds.
And most runners aren’t doing these feats in a vacuum—they’re sharing their attempts on social media and tracking apps like Strava. Some may be doing it out of more of a “look at me” mentality, but others may be hoping to inspire people by proving that impressive physical feats are still possible.
Whatever their intentions, their stories may actually spur some hope. Forester Safford was inspired to run his driveway marathon after reading about a man in France who ran for nearly seven hours on his balcony; other people may just feel motivated to get up off the couch and do a short workout. “We need people in this world to do things that are interesting and impressive,” says Wiersma, “and probably no more so than during times like this.”
The only risk of jumping on the extreme running challenge bandwagon is if you aren’t already trained for endurance running. “If you’re already at a certain baseline for fitness, I’m not worried about what something like this would do to your immune system,” says Wiersma. It’s those people who go from couch to backyard marathon that put themselves at risk for injury, he adds.
If you’re inspired to try your own version of what you’re seeing on social media, Meijen says the most important question to ask yourself is whether you’re driven to do this by external factors (you want the social media love) or internal factors (you want to prove to yourself that you can overcome this kind of challenge) and if you can carry out the attempt safely. If your answer is the latter two, then there’s no reason not to go for it.