Returning to sport and exercise during the pandemic: tips for reducing your risk of injury

Dr Kate Hutchings is a consultant in sports and exercise medicine at Circle Reading Hospital. Here she explains how you can return or start sport again over the next few months; ensuring that you keep well, safe and reduce your injury risk.

The worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the way we live with social distancing and restrictions on movement resulting in a complete overhaul of how we stay physically active and well. Following the initial temporary closures of sporting facilities and leisure centres, many people found alternative ways of keeping active and adapting to the “new normal” environment. However, for some people staying at home for prolonged periods of time has posed a significant challenge in keeping up with their regular levels of activity. 

Research from Sport England has shown that people have turned to alternative ways of keeping active during the pandemic, particularly with cycling and walking to keep active outdoors.  In one survey, 65% of people across the first six weeks of lockdown stated that they felt exercise was also important for their mental health. This is a promising statistic as it has long been recognised that sedentary behaviour and low levels of physical activity can have negative effects on our health, well-being and quality of life.

Subject to local restrictions in England, the majority of outdoor sport facilities have now reopened, if those responsible for them feel ready to do so safely. Indoor facilities such as gyms and pools have also reopened in many areas, again subject to local restrictions, provided operators follow government guidelines. The government has also published guidelines for the phased return of sport and recreation, so please make sure you always follow the latest government advice and local guidance in your area.

The “lockdown” period has had a significant effect on the way people have undertaken sport in terms of the type of physical activity, as well as the volume and intensity of training.

In our practice, we are seeing a growing number of people with overuse injuries as a result of increasing their volume of sport rapidly e.g. with running or cycling, as well as more acute injuries from people returning to sport from a relative sedentary period.

One group of people are those that are normally very physically active and have seized the opportunity to increase activities such as running training or cycling over the summer months whilst spending more time at home. In some cases, this can be at the detriment of their “normal” level of conditioning that would usually be undertaken in a gym. As a result, with an increased load and intensity of training, in our clinic we are seeing people that have developed symptoms with tendons (tendinopathies) and bone stress injuries. Both conditions are associated with pain and dysfunction and if left untreated, can cause considerable time loss from sporting activities.

Conversely, another group of people are those that are only just returning to sporting activities or taking up new challenges. A period of sedentary behavior can have negative consequences of reduced muscle strength, flexibility, suboptimal sport specific conditioning and poor cardiovascular fitness; all of which may contribute to an increased risk of future injury.

It is therefore important that over the forthcoming winter months, whilst we embrace physical activities and sport, we must also be mindful of implementing changes gradually.

In essence, we should incorporate starting slowly, building up and pacing with goal setting week by week. It is often helpful to compare your physical activities during “lockdown” to your previous “normal” training… What have been the gaps? Have you a clear plan for sport-specific conditioning and are you carrying any “niggles”? Although most sports people are just delighted to get back to some form of training, a clear plan will prevent injuries and keep you well.

Whether you are a weekend warrior or someone that has taken this opportunity to become active, listen to your body, incorporate strength, agility, sport-specific training drills and importantly, implement recovery strategies to augment adaptation in your bones and muscles.

Alongside this, it is equally important to consider your nutrition and adequate fueling strategies with your training and not to forget Vitamin D supplementation as we enter the winter months.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, or a combination of both. These recommendations can still be achieved even at home, with no special equipment and with limited space. There are also a range of NHS exercise tips, fitness guides and training programmes that are available online here.

The current crisis could provide a moment of learning to initiate long-term activity for us all.

Train well, train safely and enjoy all the benefits that physical activity and sport has to offer over the coming months.

Would you like to see a specialist?

If you need support and advice regarding an injury, call 0118 922 0026 or email us via to book a consultation with a consultant or physiotherapist.

Dr Kate Hutchings is a consultant in sports and exercise medicine at Circle Reading Hospital. You can book a consultation with Dr Hutchings by using the details above, or find out more about her professional background by visiting her website profile.

Circle Reading Hospital has introduced a range of additional safety measures to keep our patients and staff safe during the pandemic. Find out more about steps we’ve taken, and what you can expect, by visiting our information page here.


Article published: October 2020

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