Running Coaching & Sports Physiology

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Practical Advice to Training Athletes During COVID-19 Outbreak – Ben Cox (BSc, MSc)


Want vs Need

As an athlete it can sometimes be really hard to explain to people that you actually Need to train, not want – NEED! Athletic training, and to many extents any regular physical activity regimen, is actually an addiction. It is built up over weeks/months/years, and it forms the skeleton of your lifetime. The bottom line is you can’t just stop, and even slowing down makes you feel anxious. You’re psychological well-being is intertwined with when you last trained, what training you are doing now, and when you will next train. For that reason, I feel it my responsibility as a coach to write this piece.


First of all, I’m sending you a virtual hug (at least 2 metres away) and I’m telling you; “it WILL be OK”.  You need to do this to yourself, to your fellow athletes, and your support network around you – for we are all in this crazy time together.  Reach out to the people you usually compete against and say “hey, I hope you’re OK, I can’t wait until we can compete against each other again – call me if you need to talk”. As a Coach I am concerned for your general psychological well-being before I am concerned about what sports psychology WhizBang I’m going to employ to keep you motivated through these times. You need to remain calm, positive, and process this situation as any other hiccup that has entered into your training. Reach out to your sport’s governing body and network to see how they are supporting athletes, and how you can help support others.


The reality of the situation is that all athletes globally are in the same situation, and it will actually be better for all sports if athletes unite and tackle this together to eliminate some of the lonely dark times that as individuals some of you are likely to be feeling already.  I’m pretty confident to say that COVID-19 won’t suddenly stop being a thing and you get a notice that you’ll be competing next week – this WILL be a long process and a gradual return to ‘normality’, or whatever the new normality will be. So, don’t panic thinking that you are losing ground with every day that passes, be proactive and realign with what you CAN do, and work towards new goals. I’m going to cover this more in ‘Periodisation’ below.


When Should You Train?

Right now, I would say that if you have any symptoms of a cold or cough, or you’re feeling low, weak, and/or ‘run down’ – then DO NOT TRAIN. Instead focus on how you can get yourself back to full health and fitness. Sleep, fuel, hydrate, repeat. It is becoming clear that COVID-19 is not the same for everyone and could manifest very mildly in some and be completely life-threatening to others.  One of the things that people are struggling to come to terms with COVID-19 is that there is a huge social responsibility (at a species level) to not only protect yourself but also to protect everyone else that comes within 6 feet of you. For this reason, I would say that if anyone you are going to be in contact with (or you yourself) has an underlying health condition, then you should be isolating to minimise the risk of infection. This doesn’t mean not training, this is about keeping away from the virus. To clarify, I would class running a country path or an open beach by yourself as isolation.


Hygiene and Cleanliness

COVID-19 is a virus that is spread through moisture from an infected source to the next. Suspected avenues into the body are the mouth, nose and eyes – however we can’t rule out other entries.  Once in the body it will depend on underlying conditions and your immune system as to how it will affect you. I will talk more about immune system in a bit.  The best visual explanation I have at the moment for how easy it is for COVID-19 to pass from source to source, is vaping. You know when you’re walking down the street and someone puffs a big vape and it hangs in the air, well that’s vapour – water droplets. Not only that but it’s been into their lungs and back out and it’s got the virus on it, and then you breath it in walking past – you now have COVID-19. They might not have known they had it, or that you have COPD, but now you have a very big problem on your hands.


So, you decide to do some med ball work with your training partner as it’s non-contact and you will be more than 2 metres away from each other.  You do a few rounds and you’re blowing out hard when you release the ball and bounce it to the ground just as your coach taught you. As you blow out a water droplet comes from your mouth to the med ball, passes via the ground to your training partner who catches the ball, they’re getting sweaty so they wipe their forehead after releasing the ball to you again – they are now potentially infected. Immediately after the med ball unit you go into a plank, your training partner puts their hand where the ball bounced and transfers your mouth fluid to their hand, after completing the plank they wipe the sweat off their face – yup.


So, what if you want to do med ball work?  Simple, spray and wipe the ball with anti-bac prior to using it, use it solo, if possible use it outdoors where no one is likely to be exposed, anti-bac and wipe surfaces the ball touches (wall throws), spray and wipe the ball after using and do not pass to someone else to use.


I know it sounds extreme, but this is how we need to think about every action now, not just for ourselves but for the safety of all those around us. Keep yourself clean, keep everything you use clean, and keep away from people and things that aren’t clean.


The Immune System and Gut Health

Personally, I believe that the immune system and gut health is the single most important factor for us after infection has occurred. Elderly people tend to have suppressed immune systems as do people with existing underlying conditions, whereas, healthy young kids tend to have really good immune systems.  As training athletes, you are constantly suppressing or recovering your immune system, and here we need to be very careful.  The immune system is what will do all the fighting when we get the virus, not our minds, heart, lungs, etc.  Therefore, it is vital that we keep our immune system fully charged and fighting fit – fight from within.  Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) represents almost 70% of the entire immune system - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/, and therefore the microbial balance of the gut is absolutely paramount to supporting our immune system. 


Nutrition and Hydration

There is a lot out there in books and on the internet on how to maintain a healthy gut, for me it is the simple process of culturing my own milk kefir and drinking a glass every day.  This is a non-complicated and very inexpensive way to ensure my gut microbiome stays fully charged.  Make sure you are getting plenty of fibre and probiotics into your diet through live yogurts, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, and other fermented foods.


You need to make sure you stay super attentive to adequate nutrition and hydration for an athlete in training, this includes keeping up with all the extra bits you use. As athletes you all know that you need a strong balanced diet and many of you supplement this with other nutritional aids. My recommendation is not to drop this practice just because you are not going to be competing, if anything stay far more vigilant.  One of my athletes asked me last night; “when should I take my Cherry Active, after every training session or just the heavy ones?”. I replied - “I’m taking mine every day and I’m not in training, I advise you do the same”.  Cherry Active is high in antioxidants and therefore is helping the body to clear unhelpful elements, maintain gut health, and speed the recovery process – right now I want that every day. You can find out more and order Cherry Active (15% discount code - 'race15') here - https://active-edge.co.uk/.


Hydration has become super important in light of COVID-19 as advisors are telling us that if the virus is washed from the throat into the stomach then the stomach acid will kill the virus dead. So, we need to keep flushing our throats and ensuring our nasal passages are clear and moist.  We don’t want dry throats or nasal passages as these will create an environment for the virus to attach and mature.  Therefore, adequate hydration and balance of hydration is very important. In balance of hydration I’m talking about making sure your body’s electrolyte concentrations are balanced.  I recommend all my athletes use Precision Hydration where they say - “As well as maintaining fluid balance, sodium plays an important role in the absorption of nutrients in the gut, maintaining cognitive function, nerve impulse transmission and in muscle contraction. Basically, it's pretty darn important”.  You can read up on Precision Hydration, take their online sweat test, and order online (15% discount code: PT-BENCOX15) here; https://www.precisionhydration.com/.


Sleep and Recovery

I know us coaches are always banging on about getting enough sleep and recovery but hopefully after reading all the above you will realise that right now you should be getting as much rest between training sessions as possible. It is widely accepted that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ open for 72 hours or more post marathon, where the body’s immune system is suppressed and vulnerable. If you are continuing with long pre-marathon runs now then you are really vulnerable and need to be super careful to isolate and allow extra recovery post these sessions. Use this as a time to try and improve your ‘quality sleep’, giving yourself extra rest time to recover both physiologically and psychologically.


Periodisation / Load / Intensity

The majority of Athletes and Coaches need to now accept the situation and re-periodise their training programs to new goals.  I say majority as we still have the Tokyo 2020 situation, for which I really feel for all athletes globally and maybe the solution is that the athletes need to get together and speak with one voice. For the rest it has been event after event of cancellations. I recommend you speak with your coaches and your sport governing bodies and start to get some best-case and worst-case scenarios for events being restaged.  As I mentioned earlier, there is very little likelihood of this ending soon and events being rushed in to staging, and so this tells us that we need to take our training back a few phases. For example, if you were entering into peak Spring marathon phase we know that there will be no major marathons until the Autumn at the earliest and so we now need to drop back to base marathon phase. You can’t expect to enter now into peak phase and stay there (safely) until events are eventually re-planned.  Load, frequency, intensity, and time all need to be scaled back again.  On the plus side, you will now be in a base phase at a much higher base than when you started and so your potential performance could now be greater!


Be Strong and Protect Your Lungs

As a coach I’m very cautious at the moment about the length of time that athletes place their lungs under stress for, given the violent nature of COVID-19 on the lungs – especially endurance and ultra-athletes.  I think that this time should be a time of strengthening, cross-training, and the training and mobilisation of small muscle groups and motor movements. If you feel it’s essential, then any long endurance work should be followed immediately by isolation and an emphasis on refuelling and immune system recovery.  Long endurance work should be constantly fuelled and hydrated and done in a solo environment.


Support Your Sponsors and Support Network

Those people that are there for you and support you through your training and competition, they need support too. All businesses will be affected by this situation and that includes that company that sends you your protein powder or hydration drink. Don’t forget them now and then come out the other side of this with your hand out – we’re in this together.