As COVID-19 began spreading around the world several months ago, sporting events from little league games to elite competitions were cancelled—and for good reason, as close contact among athletes and spectators can foster the spread of the novel coronavirus. A February soccer game in Italy, for example, helped fuel that country’s outbreak, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said a recreational hockey game in Tampa, Fla. in June was a dreader “superspreader” event. The pandemic also forced the postponement of what was supposed to be year’s signature international athletic gathering—the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—lest athletes carry the virus back into their home countries. While sports have since returned, with measures like bubbles and daily testing and restrictions on spectators, a potential new surge of infections during the winter again threatens events on all levels.
While COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for the elderly and other vulnerable populations, it can still kill otherwise healthy individuals, like elite athletes. Moreover, researchers are worried that COVID-19 may pose long-term risks to heart and lung health, consequences that could derail an athlete’s career.
The sports stoppage, however, came with steep costs for those who’ve dedicated their lives in pursuit of victory. According to a study released Tuesday from Stanford University and Strava, a social network of exercise enthusiasts, 22.5% of professional athletes reported feeling down or depressed on more than half of the days of the week in the period between mid-March and August of this year, while COVID-19 restrictions on athletic training and competition were in place, compared to 3.9% of athletes reporting the same struggles earlier this year before the pandemic hit. That’s an increase of 477%. Researchers also found that those surveyed—who were endurance athletes like cyclists, runners, and triathletes—were 5.9 times more likely to report feeling nervous or anxious for more than half the days of the week during the pandemic period than beforehand; they were 7.1 times more likely to report little interest in doing things.
The pandemic is also taking a mental health toll on pretty much everyone else, of course. But these numbers are startling given that exercise has been shown to help mitigate issues like depression and anxiety.
“It’s pretty obvious that people right now, given everything that’s been going on in 2020, the calamity across the board, that people are going to have mental health struggles and difficulty exercising and a lot of these symptoms,” says Dr. Megan Roche, clinical researcher at Stanford and a lead author on the study. “What was most shocking was the magnitude of that. It’s very rare, in these sorts of studies, to see things like ‘six times increase’ and ‘seven times increase’ and just to see the staggering numbers we were seeing.”
‘I was in such a rut’
While this study was limited to 131 professional endurance athletes, the data has implications across all sports. Considering that runners and cyclists still had relatively easy access to training during the shutdown—you could still go on a long run or bike ride while gyms and pools and other sports facilities were closed—the pandemic’s mental health effects could be worse for other athletes who were locked out of courts, rinks, and so on.
The pandemic is also creating financial anxiety for these pros: 71% of them reported worrying about compensation during the pandemic, and of the athletes surveyed who received compensation from sponsors, nearly half—47%—saw a reduction in paid opportunities during COVID-19 restrictions.
Rebecca Mehra, a U.S. middle distance runner who was preparing for the Olympic trials when the pandemic shut down sports, felt some relief when she saw the study results, as they showed she wasn’t the only one feeling anxious and unmotivated.
“It makes you feel more normal to know other athletes have been frustrated and having a tough time,” says Mehra, who was surveyed for the study. The cancellation of the Olympics—and of her race schedule—crushed her. “I was just in such a rut,” says Mehra. “I didn’t want to get up and go to practice. I barely felt like running.” Mehra also lost a part-time job working in the athletic department at Stanford, her alma mater.
Triathlete Pedro Gomes, an Ironman competitor, felt confused after pools near his Scottsdale, Ariz. home were shut down. “Mentally, I was definitely lost,” says Gomes, another study participant. “I just did not know how long the pool was going to be closed for. The uncertainty of not knowing when this is going to end and being completely out of my control, it was something scary.”
How athletes can bounce back
The good news: athletes like Gomes and Mehra proved resilient. Data from Strava showed that overall, athletes wound up actually increasing their physical exertion during the period of COVID-19 restrictions: they exercised for an average of 103 minutes per day during the shutdown period, compared to 92 minutes a day beforehand. They seemed acutely aware that even if the fruits of running and biking wouldn’t show up in competitions, they’d at least help their mental health. “Right now,” says Roche, “it’s all about finding magic in the mundane.”
Gomes started waking up at 2 am in Arizona to race virtually against his friends in his native Portugal on an indoor bike trainer; on Oct. 19, he finished second in his first competitive Ironman race since the pandemic.
Mehra, meanwhile, hit reset. “I was eating Nutella and ice cream whenever,” she says. After the shock of the cancellations wore off, she returned to running for the sake of running and pursued other interests; she’s now serving as a campaign manager in a city council race in Bend, Ore, where she lives. And in August, she competed in a makeshift meet at a high school track in Los Angeles. There were no screaming fans or prize money. This 800-m race could not have been farther from Mehra’s Olympic dream.
She ran a personal best.