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Returning to exercise safely after COVID-19 recovery


If you’ve been infected by COVID-19, it’s important to consult with your physician prior to returning to exercise. This article is meant to guide you on easing back into fitness but is not to be considered medical advice.

The 2020 pandemic made waves across the globe, impacting everyone’s life in some way. Athletes were sidelined in new ways that required an entirely different approach to recovery compared to standard colds and flus. A key lesson? Jumping back into exercise too soon can lead to long-term health issues and affect your overall athletic performance.

What is COVID and how does it affect your body?

It happened – you tested positive for COVID-19. Now what? First, let’s break down this infamous disease that rocked our world (the effects we’re still reeling from) and how it affects your body.

COVID-19 and its variants can attack the body in different ways, and it varies from person to person. On the more severe side, it can do damage to all major organ systems, including the cardiorespiratory system and nervous system.

Acute symptoms can present as fever, cough, headache, fatigue, breathing difficulties, loss of smell, and loss of taste. While some cases can require hospitalization, most are luckily mild or asymptomatic and clear up without lingering issues.

Yet even with a mild case, not taking the right precautions could lead to long-term symptoms, also known as “long COVID” or “post-COVID syndrome.” Here, symptoms can include ongoing fatigue, muscle pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, cognitive dysfunction ("brain fog"), and post-exertional malaise (where your symptoms worsen after physical activity).

As athletes, it’s critical that we ease back into our groove and practice a certain amount of self-restraint to give our bodies a chance to recover fully.

How to approach exercise after COVID

If you’ve been sidelined by COVID, you may be itching to get back out there. Taking unplanned rest days is hard, we get it. But in this case, flexing your patience muscle is truly the ultimate flex because jumping back into your training too soon could be doing more damage than good.

As hard as it is, you should hold off on straining yourself physically until your symptoms (should you have them) have cleared up. Depending on their severity and duration, this can mean a few days, weeks, or even months off of training.

Before you get upset, remember – this is just a blip in the long-term game. Put yourself in the right mindset to prioritize rest and recovery. Overtaxing your body too soon can lead to several unwanted complications.

Your first sessions should incorporate a light mix of cardiovascular and strength training to ease back into things. COVID often attacks both the lungs and the muscles, so this type of training is a nice way to build your baseline back up.

Once you’re back on your feet, here’s a recommended step-by-step approach to exercise after COVID:

  1. Increase frequency (how often you exercise)
  2. Add more volume (how much you exercise in a session)
  3. Up the intensity (how hard you work out)

Remember, slow and steady wins the race and your recovery is your own. Listen to your body and pay attention to any lingering symptoms. Focus on a gradual approach (by all means of the word) to avoid doing any long-term damage. Trust us, your performance level will be there waiting on the other side.

What should you watch out for?

Bodies are smart and, lucky for us, they send us signals or “clinical red flags” when something just isn’t right. Some of these “red flags” to watch out for are the following:

  • breathlessness
  • chest pain
  • fatigue
  • unusually high heart rate
  • fainting or lightheadedness
  • persistent headaches
  • unusually high perceived exertion
  • psychological health concerns

Should you experience any of these symptoms while training, it’s time to call it quits and consult with your physician immediately before continuing.

Other symptoms can be divided into “above the neck” and “below the neck.” If you experience symptoms below your neck (i.e., difficulty breathing, coughing, racing heart), you should rest completely for at least five days. If the symptoms improve, you can slowly start with some light activity, such as walking, and gradually increase your frequency over the next five days.

For mild “over the neck” symptoms (i.e., congested nose, light headache), you can start with light activities like walking or slowly cycling. Referring back to the step-by-step approach, you can gradually increase the frequency, volume, and intensity as you go. Check in with yourself, and if your symptoms aren’t getting worse or you even see some improvement, you can continue to add on.

When you’re feeling strong and all symptoms have subsided, you should be ready to resume your normal training. Build your baseline, add, modify, and progress. Keep in mind that it should still be at a reduced frequency, volume, and intensity for the first few sessions. Trust the process and yourself - you’ll get there!

It can’t be stressed enough – start slow and pay attention to your body. Pushing too hard too soon will only extend your recovery period and could lead to new complications.

How to cope with being sidelined for a while

Prior to COVID, you had goals you wanted to achieve, a plan you wanted to stick to. And if you got hit with some major symptoms (or even red flag symptoms) and it knocked you down for an extended period, it can be tough to cope, especially for athletes.

While physical training may be off the table, you can still train without overexerting yourself. Hello, mindset training or meditation. Meditation is a great way to connect with your body and shift your focus from what you can’t do, to what you can – to look inward. Add breathwork to the mix (if approved by your physician) to improve your lung function and help your nervous system.

Light stretching and mobility exercises are another great way to help your body relax, reduce muscle tension, and keep your mobility up. Plus, it will help with your overall performance once you can get back in the game.

If you don’t feel like moving, you could also take this time to improve your nutrition (i.e., try out some healthy recipes to prepare your comeback) or listen to something that keeps you motivated, such as a podcast. You might even learn some helpful tips and tricks that will bolster your training when you’re ready to get back at it! Once you get in the right headspace, there are so many other things you can achieve during this training lull.

Let’s recap:

COVID-19 is a complex disease that can resolve entirely on its own, but also pose major long-term health problems. If you’ve tested positive, make sure to use precautions and give your body ample rest before gradually returning to activity.

If you get sidelined for an extended period, scale down and focus on low-intensity activities that allow you to slowly ease back into your training without worsening your symptoms.

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