Physical activity, exercise & sports after COVID-19

For more than a year and a half now, millions of people, including athletes, have suffered from the persistent advance of the coronavirus pandemic; and many are still suffering. Yet, amid the chaos — and after recovering from a SARS-CoV-2 infection — people are naturally longing to return to normality. For athletes, this normality is none other than physical activity

Without a doubt, their good ol’ daily training program is what can help slowly start to feel themselves again; where they can press play to their paused lives. But when it comes down to it, you need to ask yourself, as a professional coach, whether you’re ready to help them transition back into the sport they love. 

To do so, it’s essential to be well-informed of the damage COVID-19 can inflict on an athlete; and, of its possible long-lasting aftereffects. Only based on this knowledge can you create a customized training plan to gradually guide them back to training.

What are the possible risks of returning to physical activity right after COVID-19? 

While we all know the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity, the coronavirus comes to complicate things, as it affects many systems of the body; often, acting unpredictably from person to person. 

When the recovery period is over, and your athlete receives the first negative PCR test result, they may still feel unsure whether it’s safe to return to physical activity. And, with good reason. Athletes who returned to their baseline training, soon realized that it wasn’t a good idea in the first place. Why? Well, let’s go over the coronavirus effects on the human body.

So far, we know that the COVID-19 presents a broad spectrum of symptomatology; from cases requiring intensive medical care, to less severe ones that can be treated at home. It seems that the majority of the cases fall into the mild-to-moderate category, with symptoms lasting a few weeks. 

Nevertheless, as mentioned, the virus can affect multiple body systems, since it goes ‘deeper’ than the common cold viruses. We know by now that the coronavirus spreads through respiratory pathways, which means that it first infects the respiratory system; but it can also infect other major organs and systems, like the gastrointestinal tract, and the cardiovascular system.

Anyone, even young strong athletes, could experience a mild to severe case of COVID-19 — or go through the so-called ‘Long Covid’; experiencing symptoms and relapses, well after their recovery. If any symptoms are left unchecked when training, the athlete’s well-being is at stake. That’s why it’s important to take the matter of returning to training very seriously. 

How can you tell if your athletes can safely return to physical activity? 

When weighing up an athlete’s state after the illness, a number of factors need to be taken into account. First and foremost, you should consider their pre-illness capacity (athletic, physiological, psychological) to compare with current capacity; and tailor their return-to-exercise training accordingly. 

After assessing every bit of information available, you’ll have a first idea of how physically — and psychologically — ready they are to return to physical activity. Generally speaking, the consensus is that a return to physical activity should only occur after a period of one to two weeks free of symptoms. 

Another factor to focus on is if the athlete shows any ongoing symptoms, like coughing, tiredness (again, physical and psychological), or musculoskeletal soreness; no matter how lightly they’re experiencing them. If they do, they will require medical evaluation, before jumping into physical activity again. 

Keep in mind that if any of your athletes were hospitalized, then they run a higher risk of cardiac complications and thromboembolic events. For those who were asymptomatic, or had mild COVID-19 symptoms, a gradual return to their usual pattern of physical activity, seems to be safe and doesn’t require medical evaluation.

In any case, keep monitoring your athletes at all times, to be able to recognize the warning signs of myocarditis or thromboembolism

Helping your athletes return to training after COVID-19

All athletes that tested positive for COVID-19, regardless of symptoms, must rest for a couple of weeks, without physical activity. After that, if everything goes well and you’re discussing a return-to-exercise training with them, turn your focus on their goals; and, how you can help them get there, eventually. Also, make sure they understand that returning to sports and exercise after recovering from COVID-19 can be a slow — and potentially frustrating — process.

As a general guideline, they can begin with at least two weeks of light-intensity exercises, and gradually increase intensity or load. Then, guide them to stay a few days at each phase of their ‘after COVID-19 training’; while avoiding a sudden increase in their training load. Nonetheless, take note that if they need more time, you should encourage them to stay at each phase at their own pace. In the meantime, keep reminding them of the importance of rest, hydration, and proper nutrition.

Always monitor how they respond to training, both during and after every session. If they don’t progress as you expected, make the necessary rearrangements in their program or take them back to a previous, more light phase of the training. A good online coaching platform like Endogusto can help you with planning their comeback training and keeping track of their progress.

Finally, if you notice any symptoms, even if you’re unsure of them, prompt your athletes to seek medical advice; especially if they experience abnormal heart rate, fatigue, or mental ill-health markers.

A brief guide for coaches

  • Advise your athletes to return to physical activity after a couple of weeks free of symptoms
  • Begin with at least two weeks of light-intensity exercises
  • Monitor their physiological response to exercise
  • Monitor their mental health, too
  • Remind them to rest, be well-hydrated, and follow a customized nutrition plan
  • Observe their heart rate (both when exercising and resting)
  • Gradually increase the intensity and/ or the training load
  • Be on the lookout for any symptoms (e.g., coughing, prolonged fatigue)
  • When in doubt of symptoms, urge them to seek medical advice

Summing up

Returning to physical activity after COVID-19 is easier said than done; especially when it comes to athletes — for whom, training, as you well know, is a way of life. As a coach, you need to be able to have their back, all the way through their comeback. Not only physiologically, but also emotionally. 

To achieve this, you need to be well-informed on COVID-19 and how it may affect an athlete who wishes to return to training, after recovering. Then, examine the athlete’s state thoroughly, to adjust the training components to individual overall health status, and capacity. Take note to monitor their physical and psychological state at all times. If they’re still experiencing any symptoms, urge them to consult with a healthcare provider. 

Last, but not least, keep reminding them to take it easy and be patient, because their body has changed, and they can’t “power through” like they used to; at least, not yet. It will take time, and it’s probably going to be a bumpy ride to their previous full-throttle capacity; but with your valuable guidance and support, they’ll come out on top again!

Physical activity, exercise & sports after COVID-19 was last modified: April 11th, 2022 by Eleni Konstantinidou