Returning to Sport Post Covid-19

By Scott Beeston

The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter - for returning to sport that is. Maybe for you it’s not team sport but being able to return to the gym. I’m sure most people are looking forward to it. 

We know there are so many benefits to exercise other than health and fitness. Exercise helps build self-esteem, teamwork, improves sleep, social interaction, improves mood. But most of the time sport is just fun.

How active have you been since organised sport has been suspended?

I doubt anyone has been able to perfectly simulate their training routine over the past months.

As motivated as you have (or haven’t been) during the lockdown time of COVID-19 there are some important considerations to take into account as you get back into training and playing your chosen sport. 

Even the most disciplined athlete benefits from external motivations and supports from team mates, coaches and personal trainers. That’s proof that we’re not meant to do life alone. When I go for a run with a mate I know it’ll make me work a little bit harder - run a bit further or sprint a bit faster to the finish line. 

So what things do you need to consider as the volume of exercise increases over the coming weeks to ensure there are no unnecessary visits to the Physiotherapist?

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Loading - what is it?

Terms such as ‘loading,’ ‘load management’ have become very popular over recent years in the sporting world. In a nutshell, loading means the amount of exercise or work you are doing. 

It can be measured in different ways; kilometres run or cycled, minutes spent training or amount of weight lifted. 

For greater clarity it can also include the level of exertion of a particular session - for example 30 minutes of shooting hoops is a much lighter load than 30 minutes of playing full court 5 on 5 basketball.

You may have heard in the media professional athletes returning from injury or surgery and being ‘load managed,’ not being allowed to complete every team training during the week or having their playing time limited to 20 minutes per game to minimise the risk of re-injury.

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Loading and injuries - what is the relationship?

Our body - bones, muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments - like consistency. 

Injuries most commonly occur when there is a sudden and significant change in exercise load. The main factors are volume and intensity of training & games. But it can also include training type (i.e. running on flat vs hills vs trails), training surface (outdoors vs indoors). 

For example if you’ve been training consistently twice a week then play 5 games in a weekend soccer tournament you are putting your body at increased risk of soft tissue injuries such as muscle and tendon strains.

So whilst going like a bull at a gate can be risky, just as hazardous is a sudden and prolonged reduction in load - like we have experienced with COVID-19. 

One widely accepted rule is the “10% rule” - increase your training load by 10% each week to keep injury risk low.

If you are keen to know more about training loads and injury risk have a look at the research completed by Sports Scientist Dr Tim Gabbett in calculating safe variations in exercise load to minimise injury risk (knowing we can never completely eliminate injuries from sport). Here is the link to one of his research articles.

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How much training should I be doing?

The answer to the question of how much training should you be doing is dependent on how much exercise and training you have been doing over the past weeks and months.

In 2015 the Australian Institute of Sport (A.I.S.) released a ‘white paper’ providing recommendations on training loads. The guidelines that professional athletes follow are still relevant to athletes of any level, including the weekend warrior.

Long breaks in training and greater drops in volume and intensity require a longer graduated return to full training to reduce injury risk. In the case of COVID-19 where many sports stopped Mid March (approximately 11 weeks ago) you might have to take things steadier than you think. 

Below is a table based off the A.I.S. guidelines (I’ve saved you having to do the calculations) that may help guide expectations with how to build up training:

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Click on table above for a copy of the full AIS White paper 

Return to Sport tips for coaches & clubs:

Here is a simple week by week guide you could use for your team training sessions starting now and building as the government restrictions regarding social distancing are lifted. It has a basketball ‘spin’ on it but you can easily modify it for your chosen sport:

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If your exercise levels have been low over the past months you may need to start at an even lighter intensity or complete each level twice before progressing to the next. 

Remember slow and steady wins the race.

For many people there can be anxiety that they need to be doing more, maybe fueled by the guilt of being lazy during this down time. With most things in life when you attempt to fast track and cut corners you end up making mistakes.

The greater challenge is being disciplined to pace appropriately. Approach this mid-season ‘pre-season’ with wisdom rather than anxiety like a marathon rather than a 100m sprint. 

You want your performance to be peaking at the return of the season or even a couple of weeks into the season as opposed to having overuse injuries popping up in the weeks prior that cause you to miss the (re-)start of the season.

It may be unreasonable to expect you and your whole team to be at peak fitness at the return of the season. 

I like the quote by Benjamin Franklin “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” So based off your recent exercise levels put a plan together, find someone to keep you accountable and stick to it!