Creativity and staying connected through social media have made training in isolation bearable and, hopefully, even enjoyable. It is also fortunate that, in many nations, COVID-19 distancing guidelines recognise the positive benefits of physical activity on mental and physical health and allow for at least a little time outside for exercise.

But what does training during a pandemic mean for an athlete’s health? Can it just be training as usual, or are there other things to consider?

World Rowing spoke with Dr. Brian Johnson of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine to find out more.

“It is important to keep exercising even during a lockdown,” says Johnson, an expert on physical activity’s impact on health and creator of motivate2move:  guide to medical professionals on the benefits of physical activity.

“Exercise helps our physical health, mental health, sleep and immunity.” Even something as simple as getting enough sleep can lower the risk of viral infection, he explains.

“Under normal conditions, stress is recognised as being quite high amongst elite athletes,” Johnson says. “Athletes may have considerable pressures from competition targets, deadlines, injuries or underachieving, not being picked for a squad etc.”

“Now, we face Coronavirus and all our lives are turned upside-down due to restrictions or lockdowns,” he says. “All sports are affected.”


While Johnson believes that training can and should continue, he does caution against overdoing it. “Now is not the time to aim for a personal best,” he says.

Good physical fitness is important at this time as no training or low training loads are associated with an increased risk of illness. “Generally, moderate exercise is thought to improve our immunity and reduce the risk of illness,” explains Johnson. “However, paradoxically, the currently appropriate science suggests that high intensity and prolonged training is associated with subclinical immunological changes that may increase the risk of illness.” Essentially, the conventional wisdom in health circles is that training too hard might make elite athletes more susceptible to infections.

Johnson also points out that pushing yourself to the limit during a pandemic can impact your health in another way; “If you are doing personal bests or overtraining, you are at a higher risk of injury,” he says. “You might pull a muscle, strain a tendon, or in a sport like rowing, suffer a rib stress fracture.” In fact, any major increases in volume or intensity are risk factors for rib stress injury.

“Ordinarily, If you get injured, you’re off to see the team doctor or physiotherapist,” Johnson continues. “During a lockdown, you might be able to get some advice over the phone, but if it is serious, you will need to get to the emergency department. Depending on your location, this can put an extra burden on an already stretched health care system. In the emergency department it may also put you at greater risk of acquiring Coronavirus or putting others at risk if you are yourself unknowingly infected.”

Thinking long term is the best thing says Johnson. “Train as if your competition is four months away,” he says, quoting a piece of repeated advice being given to athletes in the United Kingdom. “That’s probably realistic at present.”

“The other main risk to be aware of is myocarditis,” Johnson adds. “A blood borne infection – such as Coronavirus – can cause an acute inflammation of the heart muscle, causing temporary or permanent damage, with the further potential of destroying the individuals sporting career.”

The advice Johnson offers to the majority who have not been infected is to “keep fit with moderate maintenance training, follow your public health advice over social distancing and the majority of us will come through this pandemic safely.”

Getting back on the water

When it comes to the a best time for resuming normal sports activities, such as opening up rowing clubs, Johnson remains cautious. “At the moment scientific advice is pushing extreme caution about how we unlock,” he says, adding that “the situation is different from country to country and advice will vary.”

“Social or physical distancing works by reducing the rate of infection of an individual,” Johnson explains. “Coronavirus spreads from person to person by droplets from the nose or mouth from coughing, sneezing or contacting contaminated surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.”

“The real danger is when people have got the virus and don’t know it because they have few or no symptoms,” he concludes. “That is a big risk in sport.”