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Wellness

Can COVID-19 Hurt Your Running Performance Long-Term? Medical Professionals Say It’s Still Too Soon To Tell

While fitness seems like a protective factor, doctors urge us all to remain vigilant against getting sick.

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For the data junkies out there—those more likely to be glued to their smart watches and checking their progress on Strava—any amount of performance decline post-COVID may have them searching for answers. 

Economists at the Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf believe they’ve dialed those performance declines into a quantifiable percent when it comes to professional soccer players. The discussion paper (not a peer-reviewed study, mind you), published in August, is a statistical analysis comparing the performance of over 1,000 players before and after having COVID. 

By looking at the number of passes made, the researchers believe that they could account for physical (acceleration, condition, endurance) and cognitive (strategy and position on the pitch) aspects of performance likely to be affected by having the virus. 

In the short term, symptoms of COVID-19 could take a few weeks to recover from: fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, nausea, or vomiting. But how are the lingering long-haul symptoms (like fatigue, shortness of breath, post-exertional malaise, brain fog, sleep disturbances) also affecting athletic performance as players return to the pitch? 

Analyzing over 70,000 observations across two seasons, they found that the players experienced a 6 percent drop in performance on average. Six months post-infection, their performance was still 5 percent lower on average, six months after infection. 

In the paper, the economists were hoping to get an understanding of how the virus affects performance and what that can potentially mean for workers across all industries who may be experiencing brain fog, fatigue, and other symptoms that would make any job difficult. 

It left us wondering: What does it mean for runners?

Coming Back from COVID

Similar analysis has not been done yet on recreational athletes because COVID testing data, alongside pre and post illness performance data isn’t as readily available like it is with professional athletes. Although there are some lab settings where researchers could call on past recreational participants to complete follow up studies. “My guess is there’s studies like this happening now. It will just take time to get some of this data out and published,” says Andrew Jagim, Ph.D., director of Sports Medicine Research at Mayo Clinic Health Systems.

Until then, it is still too soon to tell what the long-term effects of the virus will be on measurements like performance.

“The challenge with a lot of it is we don’t really know if it’s anything specific to COVID and that kind of viral condition, or if it’s just anyone who gets an upper respiratory infection is likely to experience similar types of symptoms,” says Jagim.

It makes sense to experience some performance declines after having the disease. And even if you feel like you should be running your pre-COVID paces but you’re not able to, your body likely needs more time to recover. “It could still just be your body finding its way back to baseline. Not only did you have a respiratory infection, but then you likely were out of training for at least two or three weeks, if not longer,” says Jagim. 

When you have COVID, “your lung function is diminished, your cardiac function is diminished, you’ve lost endurance, there’s a lot of things that can affect your performance,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at HSS (Hospital for Special Surgery). “Certainly if you had any kind of infection, there can be a performance lag on the way back up. It may be longer in this disease for some people.”

There is no one-size-fits-all recovery either. “It’s really going to come down to the individual themselves and how hard they were hit by COVID, what their training looked like beforehand, and what their training has looked like coming back after the recovery,” says Jagim. 

Unlike the professional soccer players, most recreational runners won’t have access to high level coaches, nutritional support, and personalized medical care with a diligent recovery plan to reduce performance declines. And some people will experience greater declines than others.  

Doing your best to prevent illness is really the best option if you’re worried about performance declines. “My best advice is don’t get it,” says Dr. Metzl. He recommends everyone get vaccinated (and a booster when you’re eligible) and to continue to wear your mask indoors. 

If you do get it, take care of yourself, he says. “If you get it you have to be a really good body listener. You can’t rush back too quickly. You have to pay attention to your symptoms.” 

Dr. Metzl recommends that everyone prioritizes daily exercise, something he’s been emphasizing much more since the pandemic than he ever has. “Exercise going into getting COVID seems to affect how well you’re going to do with the disease. That’s not to say that you can’t be a very fit, active person and have more significant problems.” His recommendation comes after a landmark Kaiser Permanente led study found that patients who were consistently inactive had a greater chance of being hospitalized, admitted to the ICU, or die from COVID complications than those who met physical activity minimums. 

Returning to running after having COVID is the perfect excuse to leave your watch at home and dial back on all the data. Pay attention to how your body feels. Trust the process of healing, even if it takes longer than you’d like.

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