Sonia O’Sullivan: The social distancing of the long distance runner

Going for a run can be a socially distant way to exercise even under normal circumstances

When you spend most of your life working from home, social distancing is already part of the norm. Only now is it becoming the new normal that many people are suddenly adjusting to these days.

As a distance runner spending time alone for long periods of time also comes with the territory. Or at least it used to anyway back in my day. I can recall plenty of days when I’d be out running and you wouldn’t see another person on the road. That’s all changed now as running has become a much more social activity.

Like most people you might structure your day around two points, 9am and 5pm, with a run in the morning and another run in the evening.

As a weight-bearing activity there are only so many hours you can stay on your feet running, which left plenty hours to while away throughout the day, often at home in isolation, refuelling and recovering for the next running session.


Other highlights in the day might include a trip to the gym, the swimming pool, or physiotherapist, or what has become the favourite way of socialising ingrained in so many athletes’ lives: the daily visit to the coffee shop, to catch-up with friends or just observe the life around you.

The loss of this may well be the most difficult thing for many athletes right now, whether they are social distancing or in more extreme cases self-isolating. Just waiting around for the next run or training session can make for many a slow hour in the day of a professional athlete.


I heard exercise physiologist Liam Hennessy say on a podcast recently that this would be a good time for athletes to catch up on sleep. It's certainly a good idea to use this extra time when you would normally be out and about socialising to rest and recover, which is one of the most important aspects of an athlete's schedule that is often cast aside and not valued as much as it should be.

Still it will be hard to avoid the draw of the coffee shop. Even for myself. You just get that pull that you need to get out and not just be stuck in the house all day long.

It hit me on Tuesday morning, when I was just back from an early morning run with the dogs Winnie and Snowy, at the creek trail around the local university, which is also getting quieter as each day goes by. A week ago I was lucky to get a parking space. This time I had my pick of where to park.

There is a noticeable shutting down of things in Australia as the reality of Covid-19 continues to spread. With more people being asked to work from home, I think 'welcome to my world', but I know they must be wondering how to stay motivated and organised and in the daily routine.

The local parkrun is off from this week, some schools closing for online school, but state schools are still open in the belief here that kids don’t spread the virus as easily as adults. Still there’s not the same mixing at the school gates. Drive-by pick up is the norm.

My training group are already wondering if maybe we can have the Tuesday training session at lunchtime, rather than in the evening, to break up the day. We’ve already been practicing some social distancing, using the hurley as a measure to keep apart. Maybe by next week it will be simply an email, each to their own solo running, but at least you know there are others out there putting in the effort at the same time.

There are always e-mails and phone calls and things to sort and write, but the home environment isn’t always the perfect place for this. When you look around and see all the things that need doing, it can be distracting.

It would be easy to pack up a bag, close the door and sit in a corner at the local café. I have a few cafs that I frequent and can very easily sit in the corner and work away, free of the distractions at home, with just enough social greeting to allow for a more productive time. You can’t sit in the café all day but you can set the parameters without having to hop up and put out the washing or check the post for more distractions.

It’s a bit like lacing up your shoes and heading out for a run. When you have a starting time you can block everything out. While there are things going on around you, once you enter that world of concentration as a runner you just do what you need to do.

After my run and some breakfast and a few jobs I kept thinking I’m heading out soon to the café, it’s the only way I will sit down and concentrate, but the more I thought about it the more I thought I could just stay at home. I have coffee here, and as much as I have the excuse that I will soon need more coffee beans, I also have a nice chair and table. It’s probably more comfortable than the café, so maybe I should stay at home and be one less person out and about.


The thing that most people will find in their newfound working from home status is the feeling that you should be doing more. It is a new normal but it has some advantages. As long as you have the ingredients you can make your own muesli and work away while the oats are toasting in the oven.

There is also that guilty privilege of being able to sit and read a book in the daytime, using up that time you might normally find yourself sitting in traffic on the way to or from work. Or just driving around because you feel you need to do something outside the four walls. You can also go and pull some weeds or plant some seeds if needs be.

One thing we can all be reminded of while stopped in our tracks is all that we all need to do what we can do. Social distancing is manageable if everyone buys in, so there are no temptations. One day we will all line up at the start of an event and run down the road together. Just think of the adrenalin for that first race back, or imagine the excitement and anticipation if or when the Olympics ever go ahead.

As my old friend and fellow distance runner Frank O’Mara said to me, we need to be all in to make this work efficiently, and a bit like training, being half-arsed about it is not going to cut. Still it is strange how even the simplest things are thought about in greater detail at this time, and being able to get out and run in the fresh air feels like the greatest privilege of all.