Background COVID-19 substantially impacts cardiorespiratory functioning, potentially affecting physical performance of elite athletes.
Objective To investigate the association between COVID-19 and physical performance in elite male football players.
Design A prospective cohort study during the first half of the 2020–2021 season.
Setting Belgian professional football.
Participants 84 players of three elite football teams.
Assessments Strength tests (Nordbord and Groinbar), vertical jump tests (Squat jump and Countermovement jump) and the YoYo Intermittent Recovery test - Level 1 (YYIR1) were assessed at fixed time intervals throughout the season. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was performed before each official game to detect COVID-19 infection.
Main Outcome Measurements Athletic performance was evaluated by within- and between group comparison.
Results Twenty-two subjects tested positive for COVID-19 during the follow-up period. When comparing heart rate (HR) values (normalized to the athlete’s maximal HR) during YYIR1 between formerly infected players and healthy controls of the first testing after infection (52 ± 11.23 days after positive PCR testing), a significantly higher HR was found in formerly infected players at 3 minutes (p=0.017) and a trend towards significance was found at 6 minutes (p=0.061). These in-between group differences were resolved at the second testing after infection (127.62 ± 33.10 days after positive PCR testing). When comparing the YYIR results before and after infection within the group of infected players, trends towards significantly higher HR at 3 (p=0.057) and 6 minutes (p=0.068) were seen, with no residual within group differences at the second testing after infection. Interestingly, none of the strength and vertical jump tests presented any association with COVID-19 infection.
Conclusions Intermittent aerobic endurance capacity evaluated by the YYIR1 test was established to be significantly lower in professional football players previously infected with COVID-19. These decrements appeared to resolve with time.
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