As we look to the future and reopening, returning to sports after COVID-19 is a challenge athletes and coaches need to be preparing for now.
Everyone who loves sports wants to see it return to normal.
Sport provides many benefits to our society. There is the encouragement of physical fitness and health. The joy of exercise and competition. The lessons it teaches us about life and ourselves. And the comradery and community it can provide.
However, if coaches and leaders don’t intelligently manage the return to sport process, the risks for injury will be increased.
Because of all those positives and financial incentives at some levels, there are a lot of people looking to get things back to normal ASAP. That’s understandable, but this isn’t normal.
The athletes that will be returning aren’t the same ones who left.
We Hit Pause on Sports
With the imposed stoppage of leagues and schools, athletes have not had the opportunity to practice, nor compete in most places.
The more dedicated athletes have found ways to carry on as best they can. From running outside to training at home, they are working to maintain their fitness.
Unfortunately, even if they are doing everything they can, they just can’t duplicate all the elements of their sport. Large spaces, high speed running and jumping, long throwing or hitting, high-intensity practice, hours upon hours of weekly practice. All of this is missing or severely limited.
With it being gone, the accompanying physical stresses on the body or lowered as well. There isn’t the same load on muscle, tendons, and the cardiovascular system. There isn’t the same cognitive demand on the brain and motor control system.
Some Rest Is Good
On the bright side of that rest is the opportunity to recover. Many athletes don’t have an offseason anymore, and this may be the first time off from their sport they’ve had in years.
That can allow some time to heal injuries. Overused muscles and tendons are getting rest from the constant stress. The time off gives them a mental and emotional break that just may have needed and can reinvigorate their motivation to play.
Some athletes have taken advantage of this window to not just rest but repair their bodies and eliminate problems. Rest is helpful to reduce pain, but proactively working to rehab those nagging injuries takes the athlete to a new level and helps protect them when sport returns.
Athletes Have Been Detraining
Without that stress, there is also a negative. Keep in mind “stress” in the general sense isn’t good or bad. When it is too much, things can break, but when it is too little, they become weaker and fragile.
For many young athletes, they don’t realize how much that constant practice has conditioned their bodies.
Every repetition puts small strains on the tissues. They help stimulate the body to keep them strong and functioning. When it is too much, things like tendons start to break down over time. But now, there is too little. Those tendons are not ready to withstand the same practice volume they did a two months ago.
The muscles don’t have the same strength or endurance. Those qualities normally protect them in practice day after day. Adequate levels of strength, power, and endurance keep them firing properly to move efficiently and react to the athlete’s environment.
The problem is they aren’t going to be at the same level for a lot of athletes. Even though many are trying to train at home, they aren’t exposing themselves to the same high-intensity loads they do at practice and in games.
Without the muscles’ same capacities, they will fatigue faster. Lower intensities than usual will challenge them. If practice plans and volumes are not managed with this in mind, the athletes will be at higher risk.
Sudden Retraining Increases Risks
We have evidence in the world of elite sport that a sudden increase in the training load on athletes is a factor in their risk of injury.
You see it’s not just the overall volume that matters, but how quickly it changes. Ramping up from no training to normal over several weeks is much different than returning to full practices in a week or two.
In elite sport the concept of acute to chronic workload has been accepted by professional teams and organizations worldwide. Basically, the concept is that if your acute workload is too high compared to your chronic workload, an athlete’s injury rish increases.
Chronic workload is how much you’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Acute workload is how much you are doing this week and today. When your acute workload jumps a lot above your chronic workload your chance of injury os higher.
Unprecedented Return to Sport Process
For coaches, this is a big challenge. Most sport coaches have not had athletes this detrained in decades. The era of sport off-seasons ended a long time ago. Coaches are used to athletes who are doing too much, not too little.
They take for granted that the athletes have been having the number of foot contacts, the swings, the throws that they need to be ready for practice. Even the best intention coach hasn’t experienced bringing back all their athletes from near zero.
In fact, our closet parallel to this unprecedented situation is athletes return from major injury or surgery. While athletes in lockdown haven’t had the trauma of surgery, they do have the detraining. Safely returning athletes to sport is an area of great focus in elite sports. Now it’s going to be important for everyone.
Have a Plan To Prepare
Athletes that want to be successful aren’t sitting back and doing nothing right now. They are training as best they can. Those that had nagging injuries are hopefully getting help to repair them and remove the root causes.
Knowing that there are a lot of unknowns in how sport will return, it’s in an athlete’s best interest to prepare now and to prepare for the worst.
The worst being a return to sport period that’s too short, increases volume too fast, and has too much intensity too soon.
That scenario could happen, and that’s outside of an athlete’s control. So, what can they do to be proactive?
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” is a quote from Vince Lombardi that still rings true. Not only that, but our coordination goes down, and injury risk goes up when we are fatigued.
Although an athlete might not be able to train their stamina exactly as they would need it in their sport, they can stay close. That’s good because stamina starts dropping off between 3 and 30 days, depending on the energy system.
By working on maintaining or improving different energy systems, it’s going to be a lot easier to regain their sports-specific stamina when sport returns after COVID-19.
When we say different energy systems, we are talking about stamina for different durations and intensities of work. A good aerobic capacity is what people think about often as stamina. It is an essential part of many sports, and helps in an athlete’s day-to-day, or even drill to drill recovery.
Don’t stop there, however. Athletes need to be able to produce repeat short 1-6 second, high-intensity efforts. An athlete also needs to be capable of sustaining efforts right above that anaerobic threshold for anywhere from 30 sec to 4 minutes in a lot of sports.
The key is to make sure you have a good base of stamina as you get ready to return to sport. Get a plan, get a heart rate monitor, and get to work now.
Muscle strength will last for several weeks, even if it may not be at its very peak. If you’ve been training for some time, it lasts a little longer and will come back quicker.
Still, after months of not doing any heavy lifting, you may be losing strength. Athletes often stimulate or maintain strength by the high-intensity things they do in sport. Full speed sprinting and repeated full effort jumping is typical in many sports practices and help maintain strength through a type of ballistic and plyometric training.
Without that sport practice, you are probably losing maximum strength more than you know. Even worse, since you lose the neurological ability for speed in just a few days, that explosive strength is dropping off rapidly when you don’t use it.
So, an athlete that wants to be ready is going to hit both ends of that strength & speed spectrum. Using dumbbells, kettlebells, or even bands can help maintain that muscle’s ability to produce high forces.
Doing explosive jumping exercises will help maintain that explosive strength.
Tendons connect muscles to bones to transmit the muscle’s force and create movement. They can also act like springs in many athletic movements, from running to jumping.
They lose their trained capabilities and structure between 2 – 4 weeks according to the research. They are also one of the first areas to flare up with increases in training volume. Add to that a slower readapting rate than muscle. That means you better use it, and not lose it if you can.
The achilles and patellar tendons are areas of concern for a lot of athletes. There are some things they can do to protect them. Lower body isometrics (holding a position for 30sec – 1:00min) with bodyweight or added resistance are an excellent first line of defense.
One of the best tools to keep them springy is a jump rope. Basic jump roping is a good start, and double-unders take this up a level in maintaining those tendons.
LEARN MORE: Athlete’s Tendon Risk Infographic
Maximal speed abilities include actions like; jumping, sprinting, throwing a ball, swinging a bat or racket, or hitting a volleyball. They all require coordination of high-speed muscle contraction, and they drop off in just a few days.
This will be one of the hardest things to maintain at home and/or on your own. If you can get out and sprint, it’s a fantastic way to stimulate these abilities for every athlete. Yes, even the upper body athlete will benefit from the neuromuscular stimulus. Think of sprinting as a high-intensity plyometric exercise.
Sprinting and plyometrics are great if you have a place. Don’t do this on the concrete or your patio. The grass is a much better surface if you can get out in a park.
Returning to Sport After COVID-19
If you want the best chance to return to sport after COVID 19 without injury and playing near your best, take action now. If you’re not sure how to achieve some of these things, find a performance coach who can help guide your training plan, so you’ll be ready.
Hopefully, coaches will get advice as well so they can create an intelligent return to sports plans that manage the volume and load on athletes.
This sports stoppage is unprecedented. We all need to step back and evaluate how we will train as sport returns. This isn’t just business as usual.