Sports players at all levels have had to adapt to new, occasionally unorthodox, styles of training.COREEN GRANT

At the end of March, Boris Johnson announced measures to lock down the country: businesses closed, travel halted, and Britain slowed to a standstill that would last for months. For sports players performing at an elite level, however, training couldn’t just stop with everything else. 

Yet, at least in a partial sense, that’s exactly what happened. All in-person training was halted. As a rugby player – a contact sport which entails zero personal space – this was pretty irrefutable. On the other hand, sportspeople, from full-time professionals to student athletes, knew that at some point sport would resume – and that they would need to be on their game when it did. Top-level sport, once resumed, doesn’t hang around: athletes had to find ways to keep fit, hone their skills, and sharpen strategies.

Half a year later, lockdown is easing and sports have returned to training after the longest enforced break in decades. Following government guidance, the resumption of elite sport in the UK has five broad stages: 

  1. Individual outdoor field-based training or indoor gym conditioning
  2. Team or group training
  3. Domestic competition (no spectators)
  4. Cross-border competition (still no spectators)
  5. Competition without restrictions (spectators present). 

Although in Britain we are currently in the first three stages (depending on the sport and playing level) progression through the stages could develop at speed, contingent on the state of the virus. 

As sport returns, I’ve taken a moment to look back over lockdown and wonder what I, and perhaps other athletes, have learned from the experience of training in isolation. 

Firstly, training is a privilege. The first thing to strike me was how lucky I had been during lockdown. Training in isolation is not easy – but having the time, space, and equipment to do so is, I am keenly aware, a privilege.

Having friends and teammates who are key workers and elite sportspeople, I saw people who saved countless lives and kept Britain going during the pandemic continue their training after clocking off from work. These are people for whom my admiration is enormous. 

As well as time, I had the space to train during lockdown. I live on the outskirts of a city, in suburbs surrounded by green spaces for running, cycling or kicking a ball. Generally, I've had the luxury of exercising outdoors in a location both nearby and spacious enough not to worry too much about social distancing or the travel limit.

While I bemoaned the limited availability of equipment, I still had balls, bands, a training mat and a few weights. Most importantly, I had a laptop through which I could join live fitness Zoom sessions with teammates, stream Youtube yoga and Pilates classes, and access tailored programmes and physio screening from my club. Lockdown has made me particularly aware of these advantages, which I had always had, but hadn’t necessarily appreciated in a sporting context.

Secondly, exercise is key for mental health. I have known for a long time that sport, and exercise more generally, is critical to my mental health and wellbeing. Lockdown has only made this more important. Before coronavirus, I lived in a university environment with daily contact from lecturers, classmates, college friends and teammates. I was training or playing an average of five to six days a week, across two cities and travelling to national camps on a monthly basis.

When lockdown was implemented, I was constrained to one house with three other people. Don’t get me wrong – I was extremely grateful to be able to return to my family home, where I was supported while finishing my degree. But my experience of high levels of stimulation being cut very quickly – and the subsequent demoralising effect – was the same for many athletes. I found working from home challenging and motivating myself to train, without a future game or even return date in sight, even more so. 

Exercise also became a critical release for me, and many others – if the numbers of cyclists and joggers on the streets are anything to go by. I took to using exercise to keep a semblance of daily and weekly schedules, maintaining training times and going on longer bi-weekly cycles for a change of scenery.

Grant celebrating with teammates following their December Varsity victory.COREEN GRANT

Getting out of the house and exercising outdoors kept me from being overwhelmed, both by the relentless reality of pandemic news, and by my own sense of purposelessness. There are reams of scientific explanations behind the mental benefits of sports (thank you, endorphins!) but the pandemic has driven home exactly how beneficial exercise can be for the mind.

"There are reams of scientific explanations behind the mental benefits of sports (thank you, endorphins!) but the pandemic has driven home exactly how beneficial exercise can be mentally."

Finally, virtual interactions are not a satisfying substitute. Eclipsing the rise in exercise (and home baking) during lockdown was the exponential growth of virtual communication. Before March I only ever associated the word ‘Zoom’ with camera lenses and fast cars. Yet while Zoom, Google Teams, Skype and the rest have been crucial for conducting meetings during lockdown (from research panels to pub quizzes), these past few months have shown me that no virtual equivalent can replace the spirit, camaraderie and support of training with other people.

This wasn't for want of trying, truly. During lockdown, I experienced weekly fitness sessions with the national squad (I’m still recovering from the burpees), yoga classes with my club teammates, skills challenges shared via video, charity mileage competitions on Strava, rugby-related quizzes, communal game-watching and analysis, tea-and-chat-catchups, and multiple End of Season celebrations… all conducted online. 

But whether it was working out in the gym, turning up to late-night training sessions or edging out those close-fought matches, sport – in-person, live, physical sport – was one of the things I missed most over the past six months. While the digital age of communication may be here to stay (and I’m all for online conferences cutting those long-haul flights), I for one am eagerly awaiting a safe return to competition.

Though the pandemic has been a difficult time for many, training in lockdown has left me, and hopefully other athletes, with a renewed appreciation for what we have.