Originally published March 24, 2020 in The Washington Post.
By Matt Fuchs
Pro sports leagues have suspended or canceled their seasons. Gyms across the country have gone dark. Teleworkers sweat to the instructions of online fitness experts in their own homes. Sports and social exercise, as we know them, are over. Recent instructions from federal, state and local governments for containing the coronavirus include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, which would include many outdoor amateur sports.
How should these athletes cope? Are board games and esports the only safe outlets for those who enjoy connecting through friendly competition? And what about sports that can involve smaller groups, such as running, cycling and tennis? After a weekend spent mostly indoors, I met a — healthy — tennis friend for a game, skipping our customary fist bump. Other players filled the courts around us. How much danger were we putting ourselves and others in?
I spoke with directors and coaches of amateur leagues to learn how they’re interpreting and applying these directives, and with medical experts for their guidance about engaging in sports over the coming weeks.
For team sports, a covid-19 offseason
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people rule out team sports such as basketball, softball and volleyball, even smaller versions of these sports (pickup basketball) are to be avoided because they entail contact or proximity closer than six feet.
But adults and children whose seasons have abruptly ended can enjoy what one expert calls a “covid-19 offseason,” referring to the disease the coronavirus causes. James Hudziak, chief of child psychiatry at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, is also director of the University’s Wellness Environment. He advises head coaches to assemble their teams online for virtual sessions, 30 minutes long, three to five times per week, to help manage frustrations over the hiatus. After asking players to share how they’re dealing with the stress of the pandemic, coaches should establish interim team challenges, and individual exercise and skill-building routines that players can do in their homes or outside by themselves.
Another objective of Hudziak’s covid-19 offseason is cultivating mental toughness. “Spend this time when you need to be socially distanced to build that part of your competitive package that separates you from other athletes — which is your brain,” Hudziak said. He suggested players use apps such as Stop, Breathe & Think to practice mindfulness and meditation, starting with one-minute “body scans,” gradually progressing to longer increments and finally, visualizing success in one’s sport. The sense of calm “will help you with every other aspect of the pandemic.”
A ‘risk-benefit continuum’?
When it comes to competition or exercise involving fewer than 10 people, David Nieman, who studies exercise immunology at the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab, sees a “risk-benefit continuum” that can inform choices about which sports we play.
In this continuum, Nieman weighs the advantages of outdoor exercise against the risk of exposure to the virus during workouts. Thirty to 60 minutes of physical activity, most days of the week, will result in a stronger immune system, he said. “We’ve done large studies that consistently show people get sick less often if active.”
Nieman noted that following government guidelines for recreation during the pandemic doesn’t necessarily preclude cycling and running outside in small groups. At least in areas of the country where the virus has yet to accelerate, he sees value in continuing to train with a partner or two for accountability, provided they are following other social distancing guidelines. “There is no bigger benefit, if social interaction is going to get you . The benefit of physical activity and the social interaction is so high relative to the risk, to me there’s no question.”
Taking the right precautions
Nieman emphasized that athletes should follow other public health guidance, in addition to limiting the number of participants: Stay at least six feet away from each other, cough into your elbow, avoid spitting, and exercise only with people you trust to inform you of symptoms or risk exposures, he said. Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions should take extra precautions.
Julie Fischer, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, agrees with the importance of continuing to play some sports outside. “Being cooped up inside is not great for anyone’s mental health,” she said. She added that it’s best, whenever possible, to enjoy these activities with household members who have similar risk exposures.
Concerns about exposure caused Anne Hyman, president of Potomac Pedalers — spanning Washington, Maryland and Virginia — to cancel all events until further notice. The week before, Hyman, who has a PhD in biomedical sciences, had asked cyclists to maintain six bike lengths of distance to avoid passing through the “respiratory signature” of the rider ahead of them. Ultimately, she decided that wasn’t enough. “I can’t risk the lives of people in my cycling club and their communities.” She also cited the prospect of riders injuring themselves in falls and taking up precious hospital space and resources.
Cycling in isolation has drawbacks, however: “We’re losing the concept of safety in numbers on the roads,” Hyman said. “I’m not comfortable on any route by myself for more than three hours.”
Like Hyman, Jean Knaack is trying to adapt. Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, said organizers have been forced to cancel more than 1,500 events. “Most clubs are still encouraging members to run,” she wrote in an email, “but alone or in small groups of two or three.” She thinks group runs should be reserved for close friends or family.
Author Alex Hutchinson, a former miler for the Canadian national team, has reluctantly decided to run by himself. “The six-foot rule seemed reasonable when we were side-by-side, but I was less comfortable when one person was ahead of the other,” he said. “And in practice, it was hard to avoid getting closer when other people were on the path.”
And tennis? In Maryland, the Montgomery County parks system asked people to refrain from handling any surfaces likely touched by others. It is unclear if tennis balls qualify (the U.S. Tennis Association has suspended all events). To mitigate the risk of the ball spreading the disease, players must use common sense, said Fischer, the Georgetown professor, such as not touching their own faces or coughing into their hands while playing, and using hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available before and after playing. “If you’re taking these precautions, and you are both outside on opposite ends of the tennis court, you are really posing very minimal risk of transmission in that setting, especially if everyone maintains that social distancing discipline.” She also advised using hand sanitizer to disinfect gated entrances.
Andy Gunther, an avid player from Bethesda, Md., suggested an additional measure: Mix in orange tennis balls. You pick up only the orange balls; your opponent retrieves the green ones.
While nearly everyone I spoke with thought the best approach was playing with one’s own household, second best might be virtual sports.
Consider competitive cycling. Max Miley, sponsorship manager of Richardson Bike Mart, one of the largest bike stores in the United States, said RBM has canceled every in-person event that it sponsors across the Dallas area. Nevertheless, races continue — through Zwift, an online racing platform that links cyclists using bike trainers that replicate the resistance of a real race. Riders can even feel the drafts from “nearby” bikes. “It is the most motivational indoor training tool that I ever used,” said Miley. “You’re riding with real people — everybody has their avatar. It’s a way not to be isolated.”
Zwift is good for running as well, according to Hyman. She plans to use it for training with her triathlon team. And Knaack suggested visiting RunSignup to learn about virtual races.
Jack Raglin, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, says having a physical competitor typically produces small but meaningful increases in performance — up to 2 percent — and his research shows these benefits translate to virtual opponents. Other studies find that exergaming can improve physical activity levels.
Not every sport can be simulated, but basketball, hockey and lacrosse players should explore participating in sports-specific drills with friends over Skype, said Catherine Sabiston, a professor of physical activity and mental health at the University of Toronto. The U.S. Tennis Association published these ideas for kids practicing at home during the pandemic, while adults can follow these drills.
‘Sporting in place’
The last pillar of Hudziak’s covid-19 offseason might be the most important: family unity. Sheltering in place is a chance for multigenerational members of a household to spend time — he recommends at least 45 minutes — “sporting in place” as well. “It’s a beautiful time to unite kids and caregivers around a physical activity,” said Hudziak.
He believes we should use this moment to refocus virtual platforms around virtuous behavior. Tech is useful for keeping in touch with teammates, but he recommends trying to grow your social connections as well. “We all have to connect during this time. We should do that as kindly and positively as possible. Doing it around exercise is brilliant.”