How long does Covid affect the careers of top athletes

(Written by Jörg Strohschein)

Marie-Sophie Zeidler’s training is intense and her focus is on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. However, Germany’s top rower has yet to face an opponent who is difficult to rate.

The 24-year-old younger sister of two-time world champion Oliver Zeidler contracted Covid-19 for the second time just over a month ago. At that time his lung capacity was reduced to 60 percent. It is currently facing a loss of just over 25 percent. “It’s very scary to see how quickly the body can break down, even if you’re really fit,” Zeidler told DW.

He fought for six months after the first infection in October 2020 Long covid symptoms such as rapid physical fatigue, shortness of breath and other unpleasant symptoms before returning to their former state. “Yes, medicine has progressed now and there are medicines,” says Zeidler, who works as a police officer.

The anti-Covid medicine has helped and now everything is going faster, he says. Therefore, the elite rower hopes to find a way back to his old form faster and more permanently. “But it remains to be seen if there is enough time to be a realistic chance at the Olympics,” says Zeidler, who has yet to qualify for the summer show.

Prolonged treatment of Covid is a challenge

“Although we as a scientific community are becoming more aware of this disease, there is not a single way to deal with Long Covid. We are talking about 200 different symptoms that have to be distinguished,” Wilhelm Bloch, from the German Sport University, told DW. Head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Sports Medicine in Cologne.

However, he and his colleagues are moving closer to better approaches and treatment methods. Bloch, however, leaves no doubt about how serious Long Covid is. According to the sports scientist, around six percent of those affected can no longer practice sports: “There are individual cases in the post-Covid area, they are simply terrible.”

Physical fatigue is often seen in Long Covid patients: persistent fatigue, profound lack of strength and lack of drive, making it difficult to manage normal daily life. Marie-Sophie Zeidler also experienced this. “You always have to focus on the individual complaints of the patient in each case, that’s very important,” says Bloch. This is what often makes treatment so difficult and sometimes complicated.

From easy to difficult

At TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen, the rehabilitation coach Hans-Peter Gierden works on specially developed courses to help Long Covid patients gradually get back on their feet. “Many people cannot concentrate, some have balance problems. And there is always fatigue involved,” says Gierden. “The trick is not to overwhelm the participant and to do the exercises properly.”

He explained that each class hour is organized in a different way. “It is possible to combine balance exercises and strengthening exercises. Or sometimes there’s a badminton lesson. All exercises are always performed from light to heavy. And if it’s too much, you can go back to the previous exercise,” says Gierden. After each exercise session, the 57-year-old uses the so-called “Borg scale” (named after the Swedish physiologist Gunnar Borg) to check how course participants felt about subjective strain.

“Since I’m involved in this, I feel much better,” Hermann-Josef Eigen told DW. In April 2021, a Covid-19 infection hit the previously active amateur athlete quite hard, and he was on the verge of entering intensive care. “I could no longer breathe properly. Nothing worked for me,” says the 61-year-old.

It took almost four months before he was able to take a few steps again. When his health began to improve, he entered Hans-Peter Gierden’s rehabilitation course. “That type of training made the shortness of breath disappear into oblivion,” says Eigen. Today, he practices the exercises at home, outside of classes, for at least an hour every day, he says. “I feel better now than before I got sick.”

Zeidler: “A rare disease”

“In the months following the illness, athletes usually complain that they cannot perform to their full potential. Especially in the first three months, it’s easy to see how athletes are affected by an elevated resting heart rate,” says sports scientist Bloch. “But it often takes a few more months to get everything back to its former performance level.”

After carefully increasing her workload, rower Marie-Sophie Zeidler is symptom-free after most physical exertion. During a recent training session, he was once again able to push himself to his physical limits. Only after the last day of training did he unexpectedly fall into a physical hole. “All of a sudden, nothing was working for me again,” said Zeidler, who is about to compete in her first competition since Long’s recent brush with Covid.

“That’s the strange thing about this disease: you can’t predict the body’s reaction. On a good day, anything is possible, on a bad day, nothing.” For now he’ll have to accept being surprised.

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