Two-plus years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is seemingly harder to escape the virus than ever before. And it finally got me.
Like most athletes, I spent the years diligently avoiding COVID exposures. But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and a few weeks ago, my lucky streak ended.
The week before I got sick, I had elected to take my mid-season break from training, with no races on the calendar for at least two months. There is no shortage of athletes who have been forced to pull out of races because of positive COVID tests, so I feel incredibly fortunate that I was not at peak fitness or prepping for a key event when I got sick. Furthermore, some athletes have seen reduced performance at races shortly after returning from the virus, so I count myself lucky that I was able to focus on recovery without the pressure of returning to competition soon after. My goal here is to outline my experience with the virus and my coach’s and my careful return to training in hopes that my experience may be helpful to others.
First off, I should say that the most important thing I did was listen to my body. Athletes are hard-wired to push through adverse circumstances, but it is crucial to take a long-term view when dealing with any illness - especially this particular virus, due to potential “long COVID” symptoms that have been reported to derail athletes for months on end. Hard-earned fitness will not evaporate in a week or two, and considering that the jury is still out on what exactly causes long COVID, pushing too hard is not worth the risk.d
It is also important to note that each COVID case is different and everyone will respond differently to the virus. This is why - as mentioned above - listening to your own body is so important. Personally, I did not experience severe symptoms, but it was far from pleasant. I was hit with a sore throat, congestion, and one night of body aches, but I felt good enough to do a bit of movement each day. Rather than hold myself to a specific training plan, I re-evaluated how I felt each day, choosing an activity based on my body’s signals. For example, after the worst of my symptoms had passed, I attempted a short walk-jog. My muscles felt terrible and my heart rate was too high compared to my effort, so I opted for swimming, biking, and hiking until I felt more recovered. These lower impact activities felt better and allowed me to keep my heart rate in check. The ability to get outside, connect with nature, and find enjoyment in some easy training was great for my mental health and helped turn around what would have otherwise been a bummer of a situation.
As my symptoms dissipated and I began to regain my energy, I was careful not to return to full training too quickly. In particular, I kept a close eye on my overall fatigue levels and my heart rate data. Before my symptoms fully resolved, I noticed that my heart rate was still very elevated while riding easy, which indicated that I should continue being cautious. Just under two weeks after onset of symptoms (about 9-10 days after my positive test), my heart rate returned to normal during easy rides and runs. It took a few more days for my fatigue levels to return to normal. Once the fatigue subsided and my energy began to come back, I felt comfortable slowly increasing the duration and intensity of my workouts. Now one month out, I’ve completed two weeks at a fairly normal training load with reduced intensity and I’m feeling good.
COVID seems to be a fact of life these days, but it doesn’t have to be a major setback. Listening to your body will likely be your biggest tool in determining whether to push through or pull back, so make sure to read its signals. When in doubt, keep a long-term perspective, potentially exercising some extra caution due to long COVID concerns - and remember that even a week or two of complete rest isn’t a death sentence for your season.
Words and photos by Ali Brauer, Rolf Prima sponsored professional triathlete.
*Note: This article is the testimony of one person's experience with a complex and rapidly changing virus. This is for entertainment purposes and no part of Ali's come back or process should be emulated without regular consultation with your health care provider.