How Self-Isolation Can Impact Elite Athletics And Their Fitness Levels

Personal trainer Jordan Winstanley explains some home-based routines
13:55, 21 Mar 2020

The need to self-isolate is paramount for many right now, and that includes elite sports starts. Football clubs have shut down indefinitely and players have been told to go home.

Athletes of multiple sports who have spent the last four years gearing up for this summer’s Olympic Games will also be stuck indoors, meaning their schedules will have been hit hard.

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So, just how will sports people deal with maintaining their core fitness levels while in self-isolation, and how it will affect them both physically and mentally?

We spoke to north-west personal trainer Jordan Winstanley to get the lowdown on lockdown...

How will isolation affect the body if the person can’t be as physical as usual?

The physiological changes from self-isolation depend on the length of time they have to isolate for. Generally speaking, it is put forward that strength losses occur after two to three weeks if sufficient stimulus isn’t there, most studies reflect the cliché ‘use it or lose it’. Cardiovascular regression, unfortunately, happens a bit quicker; as little as two weeks without activity can see your fitness levels fall. 

The football season has been halted while there are doubts over the Olympics. How will this isolation affect footballers and athletes differently?

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An Olympian may have a very specific goal whereas a footballer has to be more all round (strength, power, flexibility/mobility, high fitness levels). 

Access to equipment would make all the difference, an Olympic cyclist or long-distance runner who has access to cardio equipment may be able to maintain their fitness levels with the right program and nutrition, whereas weightlifters, field athletes and heptathletes may struggle and would see a performance decrease once isolation finishes

At what stage does the body regress, where the athlete would no longer be able to perform at a high standard? And how often would the athlete need to keep their routine going to stay in peak condition?

Again, it takes two to three weeks for strength levels to regress and two weeks to see performance decreases In cardiovascular fitness levels. The ‘use it or lose it’ rule stands strong. 

An athlete at a high level could maintain their levels of fitness if they have the necessary equipment with as little as two to three sessions a week, given that recovery, programming and nutrition is all where it needs to be. 

People can overestimate at times how much you actually need to do to see physiological progressions if training time is optimal - intensity level, relevant practice, concentration, effort etc. As long as they recover well between sessions, sleep and nutrition being paramount, then three training days can be more than enough. 

If athletes are stuck In isolation, however, this is a best case scenario. Power athletes would have to focus a lot on plyometric work and maximum, single-bout exertion whereas endurance athletes would have to be creative with ways to keep their heart rate elevated to the desired threshold to ensure cardiovascular physiological regression doesn’t occur.

How can athletes ensure they keep their motivation and exercise routine going?

Motivation is a hard one while stuck inside, it’s why people generally struggle to exercise from home because, from a mental aspect, your home is for relaxing while gym is for training. 

At home there are often too many distractions, and being able to take yourself into the same mindset as you would be entering a gym whilst at home can be extremely difficult, especially with minimal equipment. 

Even myself, I work out of my own private facility but struggle to train there; people need to separate, work, rest and play to get the most from it.

I’d recommend that if you are isolated with minimal equipment, be as creative as you can with training ideas and try to keep it short but extremely high intensity. Do what you need to motivate yourself, music, coffee, videos or self-talk, and understand that you may only need to apply maximum effort for 20-30 minutes and go for it. 

Clear the room of any distractions and try your best to stay In the required mental state.

How could isolation affect sports people psychologically?

Isolation could massively impact an individual’s mental health if they rely on exercise to be their ‘release’. 

This is hugely relevant to me and I’m currently in quite a panicked state just thinking about what to do if we all get isolated.

Will I be able to motivate myself? How will I make sure I can reach a significant stimulus to hold on to training adaptations? 

For a lot of high-level athletes, training and exercise is their ‘safe space’, and without this release athletes will suffer considerably. 

The best option is to try to get in what you can, understand this won’t be forever and use the time to research home training methods and how to get the most out of it, setting goals, however small they may be, and go from there.