How are elite athletes faring with Covid?

How is the coronavirus pandemic impacting elite sport?
01 December 2020

Interview with 

Dan Gordon, ARU


runners on a track


How is the coronavirus pandemic impacting elite sport? To discuss this and more, Katie Haylor spoke to Dan Gordon, exercise phyiologist from Anglia Ruskin University...

Dan - Yeah. This is a really interesting question because I think there are some data now that are coming through which is anecdotal, which is suggesting the impact. If we look for example, to American sport, and we look at the NFL, and that pre-season has been massively reduced because of the global pandemic. So the teams were really unable to get the whole squads together. They had to have reduced squads. They couldn't have proper play throughs. And what started to actually happen is 1 - the actual leagues are completely topsy-turvy. And it's a bit like we're seeing, I suppose, in football, in the UK, the leagues are topsy-turvy. But the other thing that's really started to happen is there's a significantly increased number of injuries. Quite serious injuries as well, which go beyond the bounds of what you would normally expect to see in a competitive season.

Coupled with that, the other thing that we're starting to recognise is that when you are working with elite athletes, the whole aim of the game is to get athletes to peak, produce the optimal performance, on a day. They're all in essence, what we call a four year cycle, to prepare them for what would have been Tokyo 2020. And so suddenly the games are postponed, quite rightly. So the training has to change. So rather than going into a period of training, which they were anticipating on, which they'd be building towards to get them to a fine tuned physiological state and psychological state, they have to go back into what we call preparation training. What is going to be fascinating come Tokyo 2021, is really to be able to look and see which athletes have coped the best with this significant shift in the way in which they have had to focus training because their training cycle has been extended by over a year.

Katie - And I guess it depends on the sort of particular requirements of your sport. If you're a runner, then I can appreciate why your situation might be quite different to if you're a swimmer and you need access to a pool and the restrictions that go along with that. But what about sports people with different levels of mobility and disability?

Dan - We've just completed a study which is in review at the moment where we've been looking at the impact of the first lockdown on the way in which individuals who are blind or visually impaired in the UK could access facilities. And we compared those to a population of individuals with normal sight. And one of the things that we found was that individuals who are blind or visually impaired, there was a reduction in some types of physical activity that we're being done. So in the general population, people were going out for more walks and they were going out to walk the dog or whatever they were doing. But in the blind and visually impaired population, those situations were being stymied because they hadn't got access to, for example, support workers. They hadn't got access to the facilities they would normally use. A lot of people who are blind and visually impaired were telling us that they would use public transport to go and do their physical activity. And one of the big things that was a benefit, I think for most people who had normal sight, was of course using things like online videos to train with, you know, these kinds of campaigns to get people physically active. But what we found was people who were blind and visually impaired were unable to access these. And so they became very, very much marooned in terms of that, particularly the first lockdown period. I think we've learned a lot since then.

Katie - Dan, there are so many questions still around Covid-19 and the associated pandemic, but do we know that much about the impacts of Covid on athletes or the long haul Covid syndrome?

Dan - The honest truth is we generally don't. The evidence we've got from sports teams where they've been working with those athletes - and we know that certain sports were allowed to come back into the mainstream like football and cricket - the evidence coming out is that those individuals who are obviously more physically fit were more likely to not suffer from Covid. But we also have this evidence which is, as you become more physically fit and particularly at the elite level, it can actually potentially have a negative effect on your immune health. We have this situation called Nieman's J. Nieman's J is a theory around immunology and exercise, but it basically states that if you are very unfit, then you are quite immunosuppressed, you're more likely to get ill, and catch infections and so on. But as you are moderately fit and moderately well-trained, which is what we and the government are always trying to push for, actually you're able to cope more with illness and infection, we catch less colds and so on. But at the elite level, because of this stress that we've just been talking about being imposed on the body, both physically and emotionally, it imposes immune stress on the system and we become more susceptible to colds and illnesses and so on. So some of the thinking really is that it is likely that athletes, had they not gone into lockdown and isolated, would have been far more susceptible to Covid. They would have probably recovered better because they don't have the underlying health symptoms, but may have been more susceptible to catching Covid because of being immune suppressed to start with, compared to the general population.


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