Recovering from Covid and racing again

Tuesday 15th August 2023

Malcolm Hughes, who has competed and won age group medals at international level in Standard Distance triathlon over many years, had a nasty bout of Covid 18 months ago and has taken a long time to recover, to the point where he could train again, let alone race. Here he reflects on his first 'A' race since his illness and the long road back...

On Sunday the 30th of July 2023 I competed in the British Triathlon Standard Distance Age Group Championships in a blustery Sunderland. The race went reasonably well, started with a chilly, 14 deg C, 1500m sea swim in 27 mins. The bike was 4 laps with a short but steep climb at the beginning of each lap and several dead turns, the wind gradually picked up as the race went on making it more challenging, 1 hr 15 min for the 36km bike. The 10km run was another 4 laps going up the same hill as the bike course, laps 3 and 4 I ended up walking the hill, 55 mins for the run. Finishing in a time of 2:40:47 and 22nd in my 60-64 category. Though not as high in the rankings as previous years, when I have medalled, I was not disappointed.

Looking back to last year I could not race at all. At times even “proper” training was not possible.

In late 2021 the training was going along slowly, as I was not feeling great. I got another cold after that Christmas, not Covid, which took a week or so to get over. I usually do not suffer with much illness so this was not something I was used to. So when I started to feel better and went back into training in late in January I started to feel tired with a sore throat which turned into a cough, still not testing positive for Covid. Early in February the cough got worse and I tested Covid positive. I felt even more rubbish for the next 10 days, eventually starting to recover and testing negative.

Now I was feeling better the next logical step in my mind was to get back into training, I looked at the advice from the doctor which said to wait 7 days from the end of symptoms before starting gentle exercise and to gradually increase the intensity over several weeks, so long as there were no setbacks. Sounded good, what could go wrong?

Decided to start with an easy 15 minute turbo which felt ok. The next day the cough was back and my resting heart rate was elevated. After a few days I was feeling better so tried again, and again the same result. I got an appointment with my doctor who advised to rest and be patient as recovery after Covid may take some time. This was not going to plan.

How was I to manage this return to training? Obviously I needed to do something different.

I started to pay very close attention to how tired I felt, my morning resting heart rate, and how well I was sleeping and my general mood. If any of these were not good that would mean no training. Some weeks it was only one day training and some weeks more, all done at a very low effort. Swimming and cycling on the turbo trainer, walking or jog/walk, even stand-up paddle boarding. One thing I did every day was some mobility exercises for about 15 minutes, just to keep the joints from seizing up.

This was working quite well. Then in June I had a couple of weeks off due as the fatigue returned. July was basically one week of light training followed by one week off.

This was frustrating, I tried to stay positive, but not very successfully.

Training in August started to go so well that by September I thought that I could add some intensity to the training. This did lead to needing to some extra rest to recover but I felt positive.

Into October and the sore throat is back along with what feels like a cold. Training is off again. Its not Covid though, and just as well as my daughter was getting married in Gibraltar, and I can’t miss that! After Gibraltar we went to Tangiers in Morocco for a few days. I didn't feel great on the trip home, and then tested Covid positive again.

Oh no, here we go again, I thought. But the illness this time was quite mild, a bit like flu, and I felt ok after 5 days. After the set backs earlier in the year I was determined not to make the same errors on how fast to resume training.

Once I was feeling up to it I restarted the mobility training and then gentle bodyweight strength workouts twice a week. These did not cause any additional fatigue. Next I started two easy 30 minute turbo sessions a week, keeping my heart rate well in zone 1. If my heart rate went above this then I stopped, this would normally happen in first few minutes. By the end of December I could complete both rides each week. Feeling pretty good decided to add some swimming and running, with the idea of recovering every third week.

This plan worked quite well, though there were some days when the fatigue meant I missed sessions or some were cut short if it did not feel right.

I now had the confidence to enter some races. The British champs in Sunderland would be the target. With a couple of warm up races in Arundel and Mid Sussex. Time to outline the training plan.

Taking care to be aware of how I was coping with the extra training and resting when necessary I managed to follow the plan fairly well. There were some set backs but nothing that felt insurmountable. I was trying to realise how far my fitness had improved from not being able to complete 30 minutes of easy exercise to doing intensive reps. Concentrating on the positive.

What have I learned since February 2022? The main things are to listen to what your body is telling you and to be cautious when upping the duration or intensity, mostly to be very patient and celebrate the small gains.

The warm up races went well enough, though the run was tough each time. I guess almost a year without consistent training will do that.

Sunderland came around and I was as fit as I could be and happy with where I was at.

Looking forward I hope to continue to regain and more fitness and maybe get closer to the top of my age group again.