IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to safely run a turkey trot this year — and 4 alternatives to keep the tradition alive

If your local turkey trot is back in person this year, here’s how to particpate safely, according to a public health expert.
The popular Thanksgiving day Turkey Trot in Denver.
Experts say that in-person turkey trots get the green light.Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post via Getty Images

For the past six years my alarm has rung at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. My father and I don matching turkey trot shirts, bundle up in gloves and hats, and head to our local community park to run a 5K with 1000 of our neighbors.

While the early wake-up call is slightly painful, it always feels great to get outside and squeeze in a workout before heading home to eat and drink the day away. And it’s become a tradition with my dad that I cherish and look forward to every year.

According to Runner's World, I’m not alone. The turkey trot is the most popular road race in the country. In 2016, nearly 1 million people registered to run or walk a race on Thanksgiving Day, and that number continued to rise until 2020 when the pandemic hit.

Like many celebrations, the Thanksgiving tradition may look a bit different post-pandemic. My local turkey trot went virtual last year and is doing the same this year, issuing digital bibs, providing tools to help you map your own course and allowing runners to complete their race any time this week.

If your local event is back on, it may still look different than previous years. The good news? This is one tradition that you can feel safe participating in. “In general these are the types of events and things that we can do around the holiday to give us some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, who was involved in developing COVID-19 safety protocols for Ohio State University students. “If this is something that you do every year it would be a shame to miss out on it because there is a safe way to do it and it can provide you just a little peace of mind and a little bit of soothing for your soul.”

Here’s everything you need to know to keep the tradition alive (and safe) this year.

Is it safe to participate in an in-person turkey trot?

Like everything we do right now, it’s about weighing the risks. Races take place outdoors, which has been shown to be safer than events held indoors. If the rate of transmission in your community is low and you're vaccinated, that makes participating even lower risk. But that doesn’t mean that the event is completely risk-free.

“With all things COVID-19 recently I’ve been advising people that it’s not so much what you do, it’s how you do it that’s important. Obviously a large in-person race of any kind could be done in a way that’s unsafe, but there’s also definitely a safe way to do it,” said Gonsenhauser. “The outdoor environment is decidedly lower risk than an indoor environment in almost all circumstances. Now that being said, outdoor and densely crowded is still a higher-risk opportunity and that’s where you’re going to want to make sure your mask is on as well.”

Still trotting? Here’s how to do it safely

Many organizers are still offering in-person events with COVID-19 precautions in place, like reduced registration, staggered start times and larger spaces for expos and post-race activities to allow for social distancing.

“For the most part, organizers are very aware of the need to create venues and spaces that people can maintain physical distancing for things like the start and the finish of the race,” said Gonsenhauser. “A lot of that information you should be able to glean from the race organizer’s website. Most of them should be posting the types of precautions you can expect to see. But if you feel like they aren’t doing enough to maintain your security and safety, I would recommend not participating.”

And it’s not just up to event organizers to keep people safe, Gonsenhauser said that each individual can take certain precautions to reduce their risk of spreading or catching COVID-19, including:

  • Mask up and social distance. “You want to make sure that you’re still able to maintain many of the same precautions that we advise in day-to-day … At the start of the race, ensure that you’re masked up and that you’re doing your best to physically distance.”
  • Be aware of your surroundings. “People may have a hard time appreciating that the density of the people around them has grown. Sometimes you’re not necessarily aware of that in an event like a road race. It’s definitely easy to find yourself in a situation where your mask would be beneficial even though you’re outdoors and that’s what people need to be aware of. ”
  • Listen to your gut. “If you show up on race day and you’re greeted with crowded corrals, where people are not physically distancing, and you see inadequate mask utilization, that’s the time to ask yourself if the organizers have put together an event with precautions in mind. If you feel uncomfortable or that the answer to that is no, you may want to think again about participating.”
  • Yes, you can still donate items. “Generally speaking, food donations and food drives are safe. Again, people want to engage in hand sanitization prior to packing the bag and then after delivering the bag. As far as the donation organizers, most of them should have process in place to ensure that they are either allowing some time for those donations to sit or maybe doing some disinfection and wiping down of donated items.”

Do I need to wear a mask when racing?

“It’s really going to be a case-by-case basis. You’re going to have to look at the course and number of participants and how congested the field is,” advised Gonsenhauser. “If it is a pretty low-density field and you have obvious room around you to maintain physical distancing then there really isn’t a need to run with a mask on. If you’re not able to achieve that and it’s a tight, dense field, you’re going to want to keep your mask on.”

But be sure to stash your mask and hand sanitizer in your pocket. "At the end of the race, as you’ve been passed water cups or anything else, you want to make sure that you engage in hand hygiene and then get that mask back on when you get to the finish line and start congregating with people again,” said Gonsenhauser.

4 turkey trot alternatives to keep the tradition alive

What's the safest race to run? A virtual one. “It’s an individual choice, but the virtual option is definitely going to be your lower-risk option and still gives you the enjoyment of participating … and really allows you to make sure you’re tailoring your personal safety decisions to what you feel comfortable with,” said Gonsenhauser.

Here are some alternative plans to consider:

  1. Check your municipal website or Facebook page. Many in-person events are also offering a virtual option for those who want to run the race on their own, and some are still totally virtual. Do a little digging and see what the options are available locally in your town.
  2. Host your own mini 5K. My father and I still have our standing date (although we voted to move the start time a few hours later). Instead of gathering with others at the park, we’re going to run our own 5K around the neighborhood. “Obviously if you’re participating in a virtual option and you want to get together a group to do it with you, be aware of the precautions that you still need to have in place for a running group,” advised Gonsenhauser. “Social distancing when you’re running can generally allow you to not run with a mask, but you do want to be cognizant of that.”
  3. Join a virtual race. One of the perks of so many races going virtual? You can join an event anywhere in the country, including the oldest consecutively run footrace in the world and the Des Moines Turkey Trot, which was named one of the best Turkey Trots in the country by Runner's World Magazine. Or join America's Turkey Trot, which offers 5K, 10K and one-miler distances and comes with a legit swag bag (a fleece zip-up jacket and medal).
  4. Download an app. Consider downloading a running/walking app to guide your own 5K. RunKeeper provides an option to join a 5K event virtually, MapMyRun has tons of local 5K courses already mapped out for you in your area, and Peloton has a whole week's worth of special Thanksgiving programming including two audio-guided turkey trot classes on Thanksgiving Day.