Coronavirus: How athletes can look after their immunity and respiratory health

Professor Greg Whyte explains how triathletes and other athletes can look after themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic

Credit: Getty Images

When it comes to immunity, the key message is to avoid infection. Basic hygiene (which should already be part of normal life!) is important, and while it seems a bit mundane and boring, washing hands regularly and throughly, avoiding hand contact with eyes, nose and mouth, wiping down equipment before and after use with an anti-bacterial/anti-viral products; and the use of hand sanitizers should all be part of normal practice to reduce the risk of infection. In addition, reducing exposure to infected individuals will reduce the risk of spread. 

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When it comes to nutrition, there are a number of ways to support a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of infection. Maintaining hydration is important as mucus (mouth, nose, respiratory tract) is the body’s first defence against foreign invaders. Dehydration can also lead to a reduced mucus production which can increase susceptibility to infection. Eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in colour (eat the rainbow of fruit and veg) will support a healthy immune system. And take care with calorie restriction/weight reduction at this time.

Take home message: Optimise general hygiene, avoid contact between hands and eyes/nose/mouth, avoid infected people, eat a healthy balanced diet (eat the rainbow with plenty of fruit and veg), maintain hydration.

Should athletes cut back training/intensity, even if they’re well?

Modifying training to ensure optimal recovery is important (again, this should be business as usual with a well-structured, periodised programme). It has been suggested that there’s an increased risk of infection immediately following exercise, called ‘The Open Window Hypothesis’, which points towards a depressed immune function for a short period post-exercise. To reduce the impact of infection, maintain hydration, ensure carbohydrate balance and avoid introducing infection (see guidance above). Overall, physically active individuals have a lower incidence of infection (particularly upper respiratory tract Infections) so the advise is to continue training. 

Take home message: Optimise recovery (including sleep), maintain hydration, optimise diet, basic hygiene, avoid contact between hands and eyes/nose/mouth, avoid infected people.

How can asthmatic athletes look after themselves?

Asthmatics should be well-controlled with prevention medication (i.e. a brown inhaler). Making sure asthmatic athletes are well-controlled should be the goal irrespective of changes in current public health challenges; it’s not all about the blue inhaler! In addition, the general guidance given above is crucially important for any athlete at increased risk, including asthmatics.

Take home message: Ensure well-controlled asthma. Take guidance for reducing risk of infection very seriously (and make sure those around you take it seriously).

Should triathletes worry about reports stating Covid-19 can cause a reduction in lung function?

Many viruses have a negative impact on lung function. Importantly, once the infection has subsided, lung function will return to normal. It may take a little time for this to happen. Therefore it’s important to return to training progressively following the loss of symptoms; do not return to per-illness training volumes immediately post-infection.

Take home message: Return to training progressively following any illness.

What about open-water swimming? Can that harbour the virus?

The answer to this question remains unclear, however, various bodies have suggested that workers who deal with water and waste need take no additional precautions to the standard approach (see www.awwa.org).

Take home message: Currently, there’s no available guidance on open-water swimming. 

Should triathletes continue to train if they come down with a mild dose of Covid-19?

You should not exercise with a systemic viral infection. If the infection cause symptoms including the chest (cough), painful muscles and joints, and fever, you should stop training until symptoms have gone. Once symptoms have gone, training should resume progressively. This is the general rule for all systemic (whole body) infections (viral or bacterial).

Take home message: Stop training with a systemic (below the neck, i.e. chest, muscles, joints, fever) infection. Return to training progressively following the loss of all symptoms.

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About Professor Greg Whyte

Professor Greg Whyte was awarded an OBE for his services to Sport, Sport Science & Charity, and was voted as one of the Top 10 Science Communicators in the UK by the British Science Council. 

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Greg is the preeminent authority on Exercise Physiology and Sports and Exercise Performance in the UK. An internationally recognised expert in the field, Greg has extensive professional experience assessing, treating and improving the performance of patients, sporting enthusiasts and athletes.