Dr Andy Renfree, Principal Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science, within the School of Sport and Exercise Science discusses how the global pandemic has impacted the world of sport and what this means for the future.
The restrictions and cancellation or postponement of major sporting events like the Olympics left many fans disappointed, but in particular the athletes themselves, who may have trained for years for that moment. What are the short and long-term implications of the lockdown on these elite athletes?
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on both professional and amateur sport. National and international events have been cancelled or postponed, and just some of the high profile ‘casualties’ include Euro 2020, all of the World Marathon Majors, the French Open and Wimbledon. Though some European football leagues have restarted, as has Formula One and golf, the biggest event in global sport, the Tokyo Olympic Games has been rearranged for July 2021, a shift that has had major knock on effects on the calendars of all Olympic Sports.
We now have the unique situation whereby track and field athletes may be faced with the prospect of a World Championships, a European Championships, and a Commonwealth Games all within a few weeks in the summer of 2022. The organisational and financial implications of all this are obviously enormous, but what are the likely effects on the athletes who hope to be competing in them?
Covid risk to athletes?
Although there are a number of ‘sport’ related challenges facing athletes, it must not be forgotten that they are not immune to the virus itself. Although the majority of cases produce relatively mild symptoms, and the most at risk populations appear to be those with underlying health conditions, there are still numerous younger and healthy individuals who are suffering its effects.
In the first few weeks of the outbreak in the UK, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi both became ill. Fortunately both made rapid recoveries, but these cases indicate that being young, fit and healthy offer no guarantee of protection. Remaining safe and doing all that is possible to avoid infection therefore must remain a priority in order to maintain health status and to protect the risk of transmission to higher risk individuals, and it is therefore important that elite athletes adhere to all social distancing guidelines. However, although exercise is undoubtedly a ‘healthy’ thing to do, it should also be noted that hard training can also temporarily compromise the immune system.
This observation was first made at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where doctors noted that the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections amongst athletes was higher than in the general population. This suggests that, although athletes will obviously be reluctant to halt training completely (which is almost certainly not necessary), they will need to balance this with the possibility of compromised immune function.
Effect of uncertainty on preparation
A further challenge that athletes and coaches need to deal with relates to uncertainty. Usually, physical training programmes are planned in great detail for many months or years in advance in an attempt to achieve peak levels of performance at the desired time (a process termed ‘periodisation’). However, this is simply not possible at the moment because nobody really knows when things will return to normal. Although the dates of the major events are tentatively set, everything else is uncertain. Athletes don’t suddenly appear at the Olympic Games fit and ready to go, but arrive having qualified and completed a variety of build-up competitions. These cannot be planned at all at the moment as competition calendars are currently empty. Indeed, it is not even clear how athletes can qualify for the games given that national championships are on hold and there is uncertainty surrounding training facilities. Planning training programmes effectively is therefore exceptionally difficult at the moment.
Disruption to training schedule
Good training relies on appropriate application of stress and recovery. It is simply not possible to perform high intensity training for months or years on end without adequate recovery periods meaning decisions are required about what needs to be done right now.
Training hard too soon risks premature fatigue and burnout, but backing off too much risks loss of adaptations to previous high intensity training.
Difficulties with training volume
It may also have been difficult, in the early stages of lockdown in particular, to maintain typical training volumes. Regulations in the UK for the first seven weeks of lockdown only allowed individuals to leave the house for exercise once per day, but it is very common for elite athletes to regularly train two or even three times per day. The type of high training volume elite athletes are doing also means that they tend to get injured a lot, but of course there is now very limited access to hands-on physiotherapy.
Availability of training facilities
In addition to uncertainty about timings, a more practical logistical issue athletes have needed to overcome relates to availability of training facilities, with gyms and public pools previously being shut for long periods. Whilst this may not be too much of a problem for runners and cyclists, who generally only require open roads for most of their training, it has presented a huge problem for swimmers and divers if they have had or still have no access to a pool.
Getting around this is obviously problematic, although there are examples of individuals who have demonstrated great ingenuity, such as Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who used her kitchen furniture to perform sport specific strength training. Of course, these are all individual sports. Under social distancing rules, although athletes in team and technical sports may have been able to maintain general fitness, it has been extremely difficult to work on sport specific skills or tactics.
Opportunities for athletes in lockdown
Whilst the impact of the virus pandemic is undoubtedly negative on elite athletes, it has presented potential opportunities. Chronically injured or fatigued athletes have had the opportunity to recover both mentally and physically from a relentless competition and training schedule.
The enforced downtime provides an opportunity to focus on more low intensity general training that may to some extent compensate for imbalances resulting from many years of very sport specific training. The primary challenge to athletes is therefore to maintain good overall health as well as physical and mental conditioning to allow them to rapidly return to normal training and competitive activities once there is a return to something approaching normality.
Andy Renfree lectures on both the BSc Sport and Exercise Science and the MSc Applied Sport Science. He is interested in the determinants of sport performance from both a physiological and psychological perspective.
This post was published during a time at which regulations were regularly being updated. Any references to self-isolation, travel or meeting others was accurate at the time of writing but the guidance may have changed since. Please always refer to the latest Government advice.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.