Footballers are inherently fit, but COVID has still left its mark on players in the A-Leagues and overseas, writes Tom Smithies
Physically Rhyan Grant likes to joke that the first he knew of contracting COVID was when he turned to chase down a Newcastle player, and his legs wouldn’t let him.
By the time he woke up the next day with his sense of taste gone, a PCR test was almost redundant for the Sydney FC fullback to know he had become a coronavirus statistic.
A few days later, in Melbourne, Matildas midfielder Alex Chidiac could barely walk from room to room, or stand up long enough to pour herself a drink. Even sitting down, her breathing rasped like she had just undergone endurance testing.
As the coronavirus’s latest mutation has swept through football teams around the world, the effects on some of the fittest athletes on the planet have been surprisingly profound, and those treating them have had to learn “on the run”.
Socceroos head of sports science Andrew Clark already knew he had it, and had suffered a multitude of unpleasant symptoms, when he opened a jar of Tiger Balm and realised he couldn’t pick up the slightest trace of its pungent aroma. “And I was like, Holy shit, this is serious.”
On the surface it’s easy to assume that footballers will shrug off the effects of the virus – relatively young and fit by definition, theirs is the sort of demographic that’s been least hard hit.
And yet it’s also a virus that strikes at the heart – or strictly speaking the lungs – of an endurance athlete’s power, with the potential to exacerbate existing conditions and enfeeble players who have spent months and years building stamina. To compound it all, sports scientists are relying on limited data to judge when it’s safe for players to return to training, in the knowledge that “long Covid” is a very real minefield to navigate.
No wonder a number of players have reported struggling to achieve the final 5-10% of their return to fitness, and why doctors are consciously holding back those whose medical tests show any deviation whatsoever from the baseline numbers recorded previously.
Chidiac puts her symptoms at 7/10 for severity at their worst, as she suffered a cough, body aches, a fever and chest pain, and even struggled for breath.
“I think what was most scary was the breathing difficulties as I had never experienced that before,” Chidiac told KeepUp. “It felt like I was constantly on level 17 of the beep test – not like I’ve ever experienced that before.
“I first noticed I was more out of breath than normal and was feeling quite fatigued. By the time I took my COVID test I had already developed a sore throat.
“Almost immediately, I found myself struggling to walk from one room to the next. I couldn’t stand up long enough to get myself food or a drink. Even though I completely lost my appetite I was trying to keep my body fuelled to recover as quickly as I could.”
As COVID numbers surged before Christmas, Melbourne City’s players and staff were taking daily rapid antigen tests, with positive cases immediately isolating. That, at least, was the theory until six positive cases landed on December 21.
“Trying to avoid a large spread of players (positive) had worked to a degree, but with our last incident, our first case ended up spreading rapidly through the group and we quickly lost control of it, to be honest,” said Melbourne City’s Head of Sports Science, Andrew McKenzie.
“So the club was shut down for seven days to try and reset the clock. That seemed the only way to get a hold of the spread of the virus.”
McKenzie and his staff immediately began planning for how they could test players on their return from isolation to make sure it was physically safe for them to play.
“It’s been challenging,” McKenzie said. “One of our competitive advantages, we feel, is our fitness. But having 14 of our men affected and five of our women, that’s a huge number, a massive percentage of our group that we felt risked losing that physical competitive advantage.
“Yet the priority of course is bringing players back safely. We’ve had to put trust in the fact that our base fitness is very good and that will restore quickly once they’re healthy.”
Every player underwent ECGs, cardiac screening and blood tests initially before they began to train again, comparing the data against their “normal” figures, and where there were anomalies those players were held back.
Once they were training, players were tested with a pulse oximeter to measure their heart rate and blood oxygen. To add to the complications, the Victorian government cut isolation times for positive patients to seven days from 10.
“Suddenly we had players in the men’s team coming back at 10 days and others at eight and seven days post their last test, and you have to be rather more conservative with the ones that were coming back from seven days rather than 10, that’s three days closer to their virus and exposure,” said McKenzie.
A week after the men’s cluster began, cases appeared in the women’s team – some of whom live across two share houses with some partners, adding up to a group of 13 in close proximity. City quickly reshuffled them into a positive house and negative house, and were able to contain it more successfully.
“In some ways it’s no different to other viruses but it certainly has affected (some) people more severely,” McKenzie said. “You’d like to see people bounce back quickly but it’s certainly not the case with a couple.
“It’s frustrating for some of those players that aren’t quite right yet and want treatment more than just rest and recovery. That’s just not something we can offer.”
For the past three and a half years, Andrew Clark has been tracking the fitness and condition of players on the radar of the men’s national teams, particularly the Socceroos. Since early 2020 that has included data on those who have caught COVID, and how they have responded.
“The evidence is growing all the time, our understanding of it, and its effect on their return to play is growing,” Clark told KeepUp. “I think it’s very conditional on how bad the virus actually hit the person.
“Players who had COVID in a really bad way, it’s taking them at least like the next 14 days to be reintegrated into training. And then there’s subjective reports of some symptoms that are lingering longer, mainly around the lungs and oxygen transfer and delivery.”
Last November he could add personal experience to that evidence, after contracting it in Malta.
“Yeah, it wasn’t a nice thing to experience,” he said. “You read of every single symptom and of what you potentially go through and it was like clockwork: fatigue, headache, chest getting heavier and heavier, fever, symptom by symptom.
“Finally, someone asked if I’d lost my taste and smell – I had in my hotel room a little thing of Tiger Balm, and I picked it up and smelled it, and I couldn’t smell a single thing.
“I was shocked. I was like, Holy shit, this is serious, you know. Even for a younger, healthy, fit person, you got a real understanding of how bad this could be for some people.
“Once it was over, reintroducing exercise was a bit of a shock as well. So it was a great learning experience for me personally, it felt like it gave me some knowledge that I couldn’t have attained otherwise.”
Clark was alarmed by reports of clubs rushing players back to training in the early days of the pandemic, because the repercussions are still being uncovered even now.
“For any player with a lung-specific issue, chronic asthmatics that suffer from chest infections and things like that, you get that similar sort of effect where they have trouble breathing to maximal levels (with Covid),” he said.
“We don’t 100% know the answers to (questions like) whether they’re shaking the virus off completely. But I think we’re definitely mindful of the reintroduction of maximal activity, that there needs to be a period where you recognize that there’s been some damage in the lungs if they’ve had that form of the virus. And we need to respect that.”
For Rhyan Grant, normally Sydney FC’s byword for endurance and consistency, recovery wasn’t as simple as feeling better and getting straight back into full training again.
“I had one night of feverishness, sweated it all out,” he said. “But once I came out of isolation I thought I felt good – in hindsight I was a way off, and I feel 10 times better now.
“I’m pretty in tune with how my body is feeling in training and maybe it’ll need a few weeks to absolutely get back. But when you’re in isolation for 10 days, as it was then, you can’t really do anything so you naturally lose a lot of fitness and sharpness anyway.”
Similarly, Alex Chidiac is still working towards full recovery, after what has clearly been a bruising experience.
“It took around five days to feel somewhat normal again (but) I am still quite tired so I’m focusing on getting in a lot of rest and drinking a lot of water,” she said.
“I’m working with the club medical staff on my full return to training once my heart and blood checks are completed.
“I’m trying to prepare to be available to play but I’ll let the medical team dictate my involvement. For now I am just focusing on getting my fitness back up safely.”
Advice to A-Leagues players returning to play after contracting COVID-19:
If you are a positive COVID-19 case, you must not return to training, playing or match day duties until:
· you have been medically cleared (in accordance with Government requirements); and
· you have been cleared by your club doctor.
To be adequately cleared by your club doctor, you must deliver:
· a negative COVID-19 test;
· normal wellness data;
· normal blood tests (including Troponin); and
· a normal ECG
Returning to play without undertaking the above tests could jeopardise your wellbeing and recovery from COVID-19.