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What COVID-19 does to an athlete

What COVID-19 does to an athlete

From the Our coronavirus coverage is free to read. Find it here. series

Blood pumps, muscles burn and the mouth tastes steel at a certain point during a distance run. The mind wanders while the body continues putting another foot down to take each inevitable step.

That’s all been part of the fun for some Wyomingites. They happily explore the Wyoming wilderness for regular marathons, ultra marathons and even the relatively easier 5Ks. This, all while being forged in the thin mountain air, has helped Wyoming produce some of the best endurance athletes in the country: Brody Smith, Aubrey Frentheway, Silas Goetz, Anna Gibson and currently Sydney Thorvaldson just to name a few.

Now the novel coronavirus has thrown the Wyoming spring sports season into at least a six-week suspension, forcing Wyoming’s best distance runners to the sidelines. Most have continued their workouts throughout quarantine while maintaining social distancing just because it’s what they love to do and it’s brought normalcy to unprecedented times. But what happens when one of these endurance athletes are exposed to COVID-19? What does this sweeping, highly contagious respiratory disease do to those who test their own limitations for sport?

Luckily for athletes, current studies have shown that those distance runners could be more equipped to deal with the virus. Chad Asplund, a sports medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, told the Star-Tribune that some estimated 80 percent of those infected with COVID-19 have shown to be “absolutely fine,” showing only slight decreased performance if anything.

“For the other 20 percent, while that goes into the lungs they’ll definitely have short-term effects,” Asplund stated. “And several studies have shown that long-term effects linger 10-15 years down the road.”

Asplund explained that the pressure, not concentration, of oxygen changes at altitude. Those new to the conditions not only get altitude sickness, they suffer from shortness of breath — also a documented symptom of coronavirus. He explained that patients with SARS COVID-1, a close relative to coronavirus that professionals have already studied at length, gain 15-30 percent more gas in the lungs than otherwise healthy individuals. Running with less oxygen pressure at altitude amplifies labored breathing with those showing symptoms.

The “neck check” has become a standard exercise for sports medicine professionals. It’s a routine check to make with an athlete to help determine if they’re healthy enough for exercise.

“As long as you have symptoms above the clavicle and you don’t have a fever then, generally, you’re OK to exercise without adverse problems,” Asplund explained.

In that spirit he advised no athlete to practice if they’ve exhibited symptoms of coronavirus like coughing, shortness of breath or pulmonary-type symptoms.

What makes this particular virus curious to the previously stated healthy 80 percent is that they may either exhibit minor symptoms like a runny nose or even be completely asymptomatic. In those cases athletes should be healthy enough to exercise as long as they adhere to social distancing policies.

As far as training partners, that’s become more of an unknown to specialists. Even those in the healthy 80 percent could be carriers for the virus for up to a week before showing symptoms. That’s what has worried professionals. Those human vessels, while healthy themselves, could carry the virus back toward those who are vulnerable and with compromised immune systems unequipped to combat the virus without seeking hospitalization.

And stopping the public from flooding the healthcare system has been a major goal for Asplund and medical experts during the pandemic’s spread.

“All we’re doing is keeping the infected rate to 3- to-5 percent, otherwise that could overwhelm the health system,” Asplund said. “It’s to minimize the spread through young and healthy people.

“From a track standpoint, if you have athletes working out on their own then they should be fine. Runners could continue to run as long as they keep six feet apart and don’t share common stuff.”

Otherwise this pandemic could explode. Asplund stated how someone with the normal flu could infect 1.2 people, on average. Someone with COVID-19 could infect 3.0 people. That could explode on a track team. With just four stages of exposure one healthy asymptomatic runner could, from a metrics standpoint, infect 81 people.

Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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