Transition to training after COVID-19: helping athletes avoid post-lockdown injury

Several weeks into concerted efforts to keep everyone socially distanced to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States, many states are easing restrictions on residents. With parks opening and commerce resuming, athletes are eager to return to the gym and training. What have they lost and how much training they have to do depends on several variables, and they will look towards sports professionals to help guide them.

Firstly, what they’ve lost will depend on how inactive they’ve been during the lockdown. Many athletes have some sort of work-out equipment at home and access to online fitness resources. Therefore, they’ve likely simulated their workouts at home to the best of their ability. What is missing from the routines of most will be heavy weights and exercises using specialized equipment. As such, athletes may lament their losses, but a German study suggests that time spent without resistance training (RT) may not lead to as much deterioration as many would guess(1).

Researchers randomly assigned 21 adolescent males to either a block or an undulating periodization training regimen. The youth participated in the RT sessions three times per week for 12 weeks, and their regular American football practices twice per week. The participants then took three weeks off of training and practice. The scientists measured the body mass, fat mass, fat-free mass, muscle thickness, one-rep max in the squat and bench press, countermovement jump, medicine ball pull distance, and sprint times at baseline, after 12 weeks of training, and after three weeks of detraining. After the detraining period, researchers compared the follow-up measurements to baseline pre-training and post-training parameters.

After the 12 weeks of resistance training, both groups showed similarly significant gains in all measurements except for fat mass. After three weeks of no exercise, the fat mass increased, and fat-free mass decreased significantly, but all other measures of strength and performance remained unchanged. Therefore, the effects of the two training programs remained, even after taking three weeks off from any training.

While this study looked only at young males and lacked a control arm, it supports the fact that significant gains in strength and performance can result from only 12 weeks of consistent training. It also reassures athletes and trainers that three weeks without any weight-training won’t completely derail the effort made toward those gains. Therefore, encourage athletes that if they’ve been doing some home-based training during the lockdown, they likely haven’t slid back to starting from scratch.

Secondly, athletes will need guidance in restructuring their training plans. Organizers will likely cancel most competitive events for the remainder of 2020. So, athletes will find themselves plucked up out of their periodization schedule and plopped right into recovery or pretraining mode. It’s important to help athletes accommodate to this. If they try to pick up right where they left off, intensely training for previously scheduled but likely canceled spring and summer events after several weeks of abbreviated workouts, they are vulnerable to injury. Exaggerated training spikes place a strain on the body that it may not be ready to handle.

While injury and recovery specialists, sports physios have a responsibility to reach out to athletes, teams, and trainers and offer education in this unprecedented time of return to socialization after COVID-19. If athletes lack knowledge about returning to sport and training, their training error can lead to injuries. Athletic injuries will take away resources from diseased patients who need them, and further increase the risk of athletes catching the coronavirus when they enter the medical system(2). Physios can deliver injury-prevention transition plans via telehealth or distanced workouts, depending on the community restrictions where they live. Thus, physios are best positioned to offer injury prevention strategies and be first-line contacts for musculoskeletal injury(2).


  1. Int J of Exercise Sci. 2020;13(6):633-44
  2. Phys Ther.2020 Apr 17. pii: pzaa069. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzaa069. [Epub ahead of print]


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