COVID-19 And Student Athletes: How Can the Virus Impact Return-To-Play?
The end of summer marked the start of the school year, and for student athletes, the kickoff of the fall sports season. For many, COVID-19 sidelined practices, team gatherings and games to some extent last year. And while there is still hope that young athletes will have more opportunity to play this season despite rising cases of the Delta variant, there are other factors causing concern among athletes and their parents.
According to Ramsey Shehab, M.D., a sports medicine physician for Henry Ford Health System, many athletes are concerned about reaching peak performance after a long time off or after they have recovered from a COVID diagnosis. He reassures students that the feeling of exhaustion or even underperformance compared to past years is to be expected when you take time off or after fighting an illness.
“When you are infected with a virus, it taxes your immune system, and all of your energy goes towards fighting off that infection,” says Dr. Shehab. “You’ll likely feel weak and more tired during this time.”
Fortunately, as the body begins to recover, you’ll start to feel more like yourself again as you get your energy back. But this doesn’t mean that you won’t lose some of that fitness and endurance you’ve built up.
“It only takes about a week of deconditioning to set you back from peak athletic abilities,” says Dr. Shehab. “It is completely expected that your body will need time to get back to performing at your best.”
Playing Sports After Recovering From COVID-19
The unfortunate news: COVID-19 affects people differently in the long term. Some people are able to recover and get back to their routine without delay, whereas others see further complications months after an infection.
“With COVID-19, there is a risk of direct injury like heart failure or an arrhythmia due to the stress your body is under while fighting off the virus,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “As a result, having the virus can cause inflammation of the heart, a condition called myocarditis.”
Because of this, talking to your doctor before returning to a sport is a must if you had COVID or are recovering from the virus. It is important to make sure there are no systemic changes to your body such as overall heart health and lung function. They will be able to rule out any long-term effects that could impact your fitness output.
Expert-Recommended Steps for Return-To-Play
As you get back to your game, both experts share their insights for a healthy recovery:
1. Take quarantine periods seriously. If you are sick, even if you don’t necessarily feel sick, make sure you are taking time to rest and recover properly. “Don’t try to push or overexert yourself,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “It could prolong your recovery.”
2. Get back to training slowly. “Start using low-exertion activities to get your body used to working out again,” says Dr. Shehab. “Once you are able to handle each activity, you can push ahead to something more challenging.” Realistically, it may take a couple of weeks before you are able to get back to your peak.
3. Listen to your body. If workouts seem increasingly difficult, talk with your doctor or trainer before pushing yourself further. You can also help your body recover by making healthy, thoughtful choices:
► Get plenty of sleep
► Warm up and cool down before and after workouts
► Stay hydrated
► Take breaks when you’re tired
► Practice injury prevention
► Make smart food choices
4. Get vaccinated. If medical or religious reasons, or age requirements aren’t stopping you from getting the vaccine, consider getting the shot for yourself and those around you. The Delta variant is highly transmittable, meaning that, it is much easier for it to spread to teammates and family members than the original strain of the virus.
To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit our Vaccine FAQs page.
Dr. Ramsey Shehab is the deputy chief of Sports Medicine at Henry Ford Health System. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine and Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township.
Dr. Akshay Khandelwal is an interventional cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Second Avenue.
When you've been hit with an injury, it's natural to want to get back to your regular activities as soon as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to sidestep doctors' orders and return to the field or the court before an injury has healed.
"It doesn’t matter how much you train, or how much you prepare, injuries are going to happen, especially if you're an athlete," says Jamie Schwab, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. "But the real trouble arises when athletes try to play through their pain without allowing sufficient time for recovery."
Risks Of Returning Too Soon After Injury
If you sprain your ankle during a cross country run, it can be tempting to finish the race. Unfortunately, hiding your pain and powering through the activity can actually make matters worse.
"If you continue to work out after suffering from an injury, you run the risk of furthering that injury," Schwab says. So what began as a minor ankle sprain can evolve into a major sprain that sidelines you for weeks.
Returning to play after surgery demands extra precautions. "Athletes are a lot more susceptible to re-injury after returning from surgery, especially if they don't complete the entire 9-month or year-long rehabilitation protocol," Schwab says. In some cases, you can exacerbate an injury to such a degree that you'll never be able to participate in the same capacity.
A Safe Return To Play
The road back to play after an injury is a long and winding one. Before you can even consider returning to exercise, you need to reduce swelling, get pain under control and get your range of motion back to almost normal.
"The recovery process takes time," Schwab says. "But if you stick with it, and you take it seriously, it's going to be a whole lot easier for you to return to the playing field in a timely manner."
Once you get pain and swelling under control, you can focus on agility and weight exercises that will help you regain strength and slowly return to baseline. The key tenets for a safer return to play:
► Be honest about your abilities: "So many athletes are afraid to tell the truth," Schwab says. "But if you're hurting and you're not competing at your full potential, you're letting your team down and yourself down, too." Even worse, you could increase your risk of further injury.
► Focus on building strength: Strength training is critical. It can help you become faster, stronger and more agile on the field. It can also help you recover more quickly after an injury.
► Listen to your body: If something doesn't feel right, pay attention to it. Talk to your athletic trainer or a physical therapist to get to the bottom of what's bugging you and put a plan in place to address it.
Boosting Performance Over The Long Haul
Unfortunately, not every coach and athletic trainer stresses the importance of a maintenance program. In fact, focused training and maintenance exercises are key to preventing injuries in the first place.
"The rehabilitation exercises you begin doing on day one after injury need to be maintained at least three to four times each week, indefinitely," Schwab says. "If you follow that regimen, all of your muscular nagging strains will no longer be a problem because your body is constantly adapting to the stresses. It's conditioned, it's strong, it can withstand the constant changes in direction."
Most importantly, don't be afraid to try complementary strategies. Practice using a foam roller, try cupping to release tension in the muscles and enhance blood flow and consider getting a monthly massage.
Jamie Schwab, AT, ATC, SCAT, CSCS, is an athletic trainer with Henry Ford Sports Medicine and works with student athletes at Edsel Ford High School. She is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist.
To find a sports medicine doctor or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/sports.