Two people wearing smart watches and running on UofC campus
Candice Ward

March 28, 2022

Early COVID-19 restrictions impacted runners’ training habits, study finds

Faculty of Kinesiology researchers uncover another impact of the pandemic

Over the past couple of years, we have collectively seen the various ways in which COVID-19 has disrupted our lifestyles. In the case of runners, a recent Faculty of Kinesiology study shows this disruption led many of them to change the way they train.

Using data from the Wearable Technology Research and Collaboration (We-TRAC) Citizen Science program, researchers followed runners’ training habits through GPS-embedded wearable technology to analyze the impact of restrictions early in the pandemic. Lead author of the study is Zoe Chan, who is currently studying for her PhD at UCalgary, with a joint doctorate at Hong Kong Ply Tech University.

With many countries around the world in lockdown and many gyms closed in 2020, the participants of this study ran more; however, they were not running for longer periods of time, nor were they increasing their intensity. They were, however, running more frequently per week and running outdoors more, the data shows.

According to the study, published in January 2022, “Runners ran three kilometres per week more, added 0.3 training sessions per week, ran an additional 0.4 sessions outdoors, but there was no significant change in the intensity or duration of training sessions. Our findings suggested that runners adopted slightly different training regimen as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.”

About the study

The We-TRAC program was launched by UCalgary Running Injury Clinic director Dr. Reed Ferber, BPE’93, PhD, in 2018 and is funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. 

Data were collected nine months before and after the start of restrictions in March 2020 from 65 participants from five different countries and 11 different cities. The training records show frequency, intensity and duration of participants' training.

“This type of research has been conducted since the beginning of COVID-19, with the goal of gauging how best to support people in staying physically active during restrictions,” says Chan.

Chan notes that running more frequently, rather than for a longer duration, could actually be a benefit as “longer runs are associated with fatigue, and that could increase your injury risk.”

Chan says the We-TRAC technology has made it easier to conduct a study of this nature.

“Previous studies used a survey-based type of research method, which comes with a lot of recall error,” she says. “One unique aspect of our research is that we can narrow it down to how much everyone is running on a weekly basis, down to the kilometre or 0.1 kilometre.

Scientists rely a lot on data. Anything we say, we have to back it up with data. The good thing about wearable sensors is that it’s real. Live data is something we can’t (get) in the lab.

With a much larger database, Chan adds, “We would be able to answer a lot more research questions, not just refined to running.” 

Be a Citizen Scientist and contribute to future projects. There is no special equipment or extra time required as data are automatically collected and anyone with their own wearable tech such as a GPS enabled smart watch, can register as a Citizen Scientist. Become part of future studies similar to this and register here.

Reed Ferber is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology jointly appointed to the Faculty of Nursing and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He is a member of McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the CSM.

Led by Reed Ferber, the Wearable Technology Research and Collaboration (We-TRAC) program is funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The mission of We-TRAC is to train the next generation of wearable technology experts through multidisciplinary training and education. We have assembled a world-class group of researchers and industry partners.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians. With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.

The We-TRAC program and its students are proud to work closely with and contribute to the Biomedical Engineering: Health Monitoring and Management research focus area.