As we launch into the stress of a new school year that just so happens to be occurring during a pandemic, perhaps there has never been a better time to run away from our problems. Or, at the very least, run for a few miles with our problems safely tucked in the back of our minds.
Running has enjoyed a renaissance during the pandemic as experienced athletes and self-identified couch potatoes alike seek relief from the monotony and anxiety of our times. With indoor gyms closed or restricted, running outdoors has emerged as one of the safest options to stay active. Whether it’s to get some space from roommates, recover from a particularly brutal case of Zoom fatigue or balance out the excesses of quarantine bread baking, it seems like there have never been more reasons to run.
“I think that we all know about the cardiovascular and pulmonary benefits of exercise, but there are plenty of other benefits that aren’t appreciated,” wrote Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, an associate professor of orthopaedics and rehabilitation and the head orthopedic surgeon for Yale University Athletics, in an email to the News. Dr. Gardner pointed to the myriad benefits that are particularly relevant to students, such as better sleep quality, sharper cognitive function and improved mental health. Given the stresses associated with remote learning and loss of typical campus life, “All these benefits are only amplified in these unique times,” according to Dr. Gardener. “In orthopaedics we have been noticing an increase in posture-related joint pains during COVID, due to patients working and studying at home,” she wrote. “Running is a great opportunity to stretch out those muscles and joints that get stiff and tight sitting all day. It opens up the hips and the back particularly, which makes the hours of Zoom calls and class more manageable.”
Starting out and staying safe
Given that good sleep, mental well-being and opportunities to be active are all in short supply these days, some people are turning to running as a source of stability and enjoyment. Even Dr. Gardener has found herself lacing up her sneakers with newfound enthusiasm since the pandemic began: “I still don’t think that I will ever run a marathon, but I have been incredibly thankful to have had running over the last six months.”
For those who are new to running or returning to it for the first time in a while, Dr. Gardner stressed the importance of starting out slowly. “The goal of exercise in general is to be able to be consistent, and build up your endurance and enjoyment,” she wrote, so newbies should focus on developing a regular habit before setting overly ambitious mileage goals. Dr. Gardner also recommended that new runners invest in a pair of supportive shoes “that are appropriate for your feet and exercise goals” to prevent possible injuries that can arise from ill-suited footwear. Another key aspect of injury prevention is stretching before and after runs, especially “right now with so many hours spent in front of the computer for class or work.”
Journeys and destinations
In addition to the ways that running can benefit your mind and body, the activity also offers the chance to seek out new places beyond campus. Michael Dolan, the president of the annual Faxon Law New Haven Road Race and an avid endurance athlete, said his runs take him all around the New Haven area. He often runs along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, a paved bike and foot path that can be joined near Yale Health that stretches for 58 miles across the state and can accommodate a run of almost any length. It’s a great option for a flat and fast run away from busy streets and disruptive intersections.
For Abigail Long ’22, a member of the varsity women’s cross country team, running is a way to break out of the Yale bubble and explore the geography of New Haven. “At Yale, it’s so easy to stay on campus because it is so beautiful, but running gives you a chance to see parts of New Haven that you wouldn’t otherwise see,” Long said. Many of her favorite routes take advantage of the natural oases that can be found in the heart of urban New Haven. Beginning at Old Campus and continuing down Chapel Street brings runners to Edgewood Park, a 123-acre property with miles of trails and boardwalks raised above scenic wetlands. A run to Long Wharf, near Ikea on the other side of I-95, combines a romp through downtown with views of the Long Island Sound. Andrew Bellah ’22, co-president of Yale’s Club Running, counts East Rock as one of his favorite destinations. Located about two miles from campus, the park offers wooded trails and beautiful skyline views for those who are willing to trek up a steep ascent. For those able to venture a little further from campus, Long recommended West Rock State Park and the Malby Reservoirs, both located on the western edge of the city.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat
As the old saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a minute.” This rings true for New Haven runners, who are subject to the whims of this region’s notoriously erratic climate. Average monthly temperatures range from 86℉ in July to 39℉ in January, and runners here are used to expecting the unexpected, whether that be a snow in October or a mini heat wave in February. A Texas native, Bellah admitted that New England winters took some getting used to. “Definitely invest in a good beanie and gloves so you don’t freeze your fingers off,” he suggested. Dolan seconded the importance of proper clothing for year-round running in New Haven. He shops for gear at the Woodbridge Running Company, a locally owned business with expert staff. Long recommended always dressing in layers, especially in between seasons when the temperature can vary over the course of an evening or morning run.
Along with varying weather conditions, changing seasons also bring about shifting day lengths. In December, the sun can set as early as 4:30 p.m., meaning that evening runners either have to adapt the timing of their outings or layer on reflective clothing, as Long does.
Going the distance
Whether they prefer the trails of East Rock or the streets of downtown, the heat of summer or the chill of winter, runners in New Haven are united in one thing: a deep love for the sport. Reflecting on the past few months, Long said, “Running’s been awesome … Spending 23 hours inside when that normally wouldn’t be the case, you’re able to get that one hour when you’re outside being able to see things and feel normal.” Bellah finds that running provides a necessary balance to student life. “I run because it’s a nice way to get away from the desk,” he said. “I don’t run with music. I just enjoy the fresh air and observe the world around me.”
A former college athlete, Dolan now competes in marathons and ultramarathons to build physical and mental fitness. For those who are looking to incorporate running into their lives, he said the most important thing is “to find what works for you.” He finds motivation and community through runs with the West Rock Ramblers, a local group that is free to join and open to Yale students. On campus, Yale Club Running also offers the chance to build community while logging miles. Although plans for the semester are still under discussion, Bellah said the team will find a safe way to continue connecting runners of all abilities at Yale.
So when you find yourself on your sixth hour of Zoom calls in a day, look outside your window to the trees that are just beginning to wear the golden colors of fall, the air that carries the first hints of the changing season, the roads that can take you somewhere new or somewhere that you know will bring you a familiar joy. Grab your shoes, your mask, a suitemate,a true crime podcast or simply the company of your own thoughts. Open your stride, let one foot follow the next, and whether your legs feel strong or heavy, your breath steady or straining, welcome this way of moving through the world.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | email@example.com