Running stores and bicycle shops, along with their customers, are finding creative ways to cope with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered storefronts throughout Ohio and kept most people confined to their homes.

Deemed essential businesses, stores in central Ohio that sell running shoes and bicycles are adapting to ensure social distancing and depress the spread of the coronavirus.

Shops are doing as much as they can online to avoid contact between employees and customers, using videoconferencing in concert with their own software to minimize the time patrons spend in the stores.

Fleet Feet Sports and Front Runner stores, which have the same ownership and three locations in central Ohio, now provide virtual shoe fittings, assessing customers' running style and foot shape through a combination of videoconferencing apps and proprietary programs to recommend specialized running shoes.

"We still present several (shoe) models, and then collectively we come to agreement based on mechanics of the foot, the sizing, the shape of the foot," general manager Jeff Henderson said. "We can do pretty neat things with Zoom (a videoconferencing platform)."

Although they were deemed essential businesses, the stores voluntarily closed shortly after the state-issued stay-at-home order March 22, but Henderson said staff members realized the demand for running products still was significant.

"We're doing 26 fittings a day," he said. "We are already booked pretty much a week ahead."

Roll: Bicycle Co., which has three stores in central Ohio, also is using videoconferencing to narrow bike recommendations before patrons travel to the store for test rides.

Roll: moved all transactions online and now offers delivery and curbside pickup.

"That's been a huge change for us," founder Stuart Hunter said. "We changed over sales staff to become phone support and web support for people who are shopping online."

Running is a social activity for many.

Andrew Queler, 46, of Galloway regularly runs with several groups, including one that approaches 100 participants Saturday mornings and a Thursday evening group that usually attracts 30 to 50.

"It's all been disbanded," he said.

Queler and other athletes said the camaraderie is what they miss the most.

"I think there's a certain energy from in-person interaction," said Elizabeth Varga, 41, of Worthington. Having fellow runners to talk to "keeps you entertained the whole time," she said.

Runners are replacing that socialization in many ways, from mobile apps that let them talk to other runners during a jog to Facebook pages that provide encouragement.

Jen Dawson, 46, of Sunbury said the Fleet Feet's "running is not canceled" Facebook theme can provide the boost she needs to put on her running shoes and get out the door.

"When I write a post, I get so many responses that are encouraging and helpful," she said. "I never thought in a million years that people will be commenting on my posts, but people are cheering me on, and I can cheer them on."

Organized road races, Varga said, keep runners motivated by providing a sense of purpose. That's why athletics stores and race organizers seek to fill that gap with virtual races.

"Pretty much any race that has been canceled and/or postponed has started a virtual race," Henderson said.

Fleet Feet, for example, is holding a "running is not canceled" series of virtual races. Participants sign up for a distance, run that distance on their own and then submit their times.

Most virtual races don't give out prizes (confirming a runner's performance is impossible in most cases), but they still give athletes a sense of accomplishment.

Lisa Beck, who is 48 and lives near Gahanna, recently registered to run a virtual version of the Glass City Marathon, which normally takes place in Toledo.

In normal times, "I don't know if there is a purpose to a virtual race," she said. "But this feels different. It gives me something to look forward to."

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley