Analysis: this was the year athletes had to come to terms with a life void of sport and its targets, goals, routines and structures

When an athlete sustains an injury, there are typically a predictable range of physical and psychological responses. Injury brings an abrupt stoppage to organised training and competition schedules, disruption to daily routine and adaptation to a new form of training. There are also an array of psychological responses such as appraisal of the situation as well as emotional (anger, depression or positive outlook) and behavioural (use of social support, risk taking behaviours) responses.

When Covid-19 brought a halt to the sporting world for athletes, it was not dissimilar to sustaining an injury. As restrictions were placed on their daily lives, athletes had to come to terms with a life void of sport. No training and no definite return to play meant athletes were trying to maintain performance and fitness levels without the specific performance targets, goals, routines and structures they would normally be used to.

Furthermore, their social network was altered, as many were separated from family members and isolated from team mates, coaches, friends and work colleagues. For sports science and medical practitioners who had to resort to virtual access to athletes during the restrictions imposed, it is important to note the benefit of social support in recovery and wellbeing.

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Research has long detailed the physical effects of reduced training or cessation of training on fitness and performance. This is known as detraining: the partial or complete loss of training adaptations or gains due to insufficient training load. Changes which can occur as quickly as two to four weeks after reduced training include, for example, a reduction in aerobic capacity and fibre cross sectional area affecting muscular force output. Studies have also indicated that weight gain is also probable in periods of reduced training.

However, these losses can be largely avoided by reduced training strategies. Research indicates that training volume can be markedly reduced if intensity is maintained and frequency only decreased moderately. Such findings are important for athletes and sports personnel in the adherence and prescription of home exercise plans.  However, studies have shown that a longer training period may be required in return to sport in order to reach optimal fitness and performance levels comparable to pre reduced training. This is regardless of intensity (how hard they push themselves), volume (how long their sessions are) or frequency (how often they train)

Here in lies the problem with the Covid-19 pandemic. With unknown timelines and an everchanging scenario, athletes are faced with the challenge of training at an intensity without the certainty of a fixed competition. A group of researchers from the Health Research Institute at the University of Limerick recently released guidelines to facilitate athletes in dealing with the current situation they are faced with.

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It has been noted that, while the assumption is that training load would be reduced during this pandemic, it is also plausible that athletes would increase training to negate the stress of confinement. Alongside alterations to diet, sleep and routine, as well as increased stress and anxiety, this has the potential to disrupt psychophysiological recovery. 

While physical recovery has been extensively examined in the literature, one domain which has yet to be adequately addressed is the role of mental recovery in sport. Drawing on theories from organisational psychology, four types of recovery experiences have been proposed which could be applied to the sporting world. They include;

(1) Detachment - the art of abstaining from both sport related tasks and thoughts. A caveat worth noting for both athletes and sports science medical staff is that beyond a certain point, psychological detachment may no longer aid recovery but rather hinder performance through decreasing motivation.

(2) Relaxation - how low activation activities increase positive mood states. Such activities may be structured (yoga, meditation), or achieved from activities such as listening to music and low intensity exercise in natural environments (physical activity in natural blue or green natural settings)

(3) Mastery – learning new skills. Although this increases demands such as commitment and time constraints, they aid recovery by gaining internal resources (e.g. competencies and self-efficacy)

(4) Autonomy – being in control over aspects of both their sporting life and leisure time. Evidence claims that feeling in control results in positive reactions, lower distress and higher sense of wellbeing.

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However, evidence denotes that these elements alone are not sufficient for total recovery. One must consider factors inclusive of optimal sleep and nutrition, resilience, social support and physical activity in nature. The current pandemic has awoken nature interactions amongst the population and has seen a rise in demand for more accessible outdoor spaces for recreational purposes. Numerous studies, including a report from the WHO, suggests interaction with natural environments is connected with health benefits.

While the natural environment is preferable, digital nature may be a suitable alternative for those with limited access such as urban dwellers or those with mobility issues. Recently, researchers have explored the use of digital nature in psychiatric and medical care and results have shown it to be beneficial for example in pain management and anxiety disorders. It is critical to discover if the integration of digital nature into rehabilitation systems for sports science and medical personnel can promote psychophysiological recovery among athletes. 

Samantha Glynn's doctoral research is part of GOGREEN ROUTES which is supported by the European Union's Horizon 2020 framework programme under grant agreement No 869764


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ