May 3, 2020

Doing sport, as many athletes will relate, I find myself super aware of my body – how it feels and functions – as soon as something feels even the tiniest bit ‘out of whack’, I know about it.

Although I was never tested, I am pretty much certain that over the past five weeks I’ve had COVID 19. It is not possible to be 100% sure this is indeed what it has been, but the whole experience has been so unlike anything I’ve ever had before, I can’t think of it rationally being anything else. I thought by writing about it I could help generate a little bit of awareness, for athletes in particular, to share my experiences, talk about the impact it has, and reiterate some general words of warning.

It all began in the middle of March, with a tickle in the back of my throat, my face felt flushed and muscles abnormally achy, I knew something wasn’t quite right. In those initial 2-3 days this is how it manifested; I just didn’t feel quite right. Achy, tired, irritable – and the tickle became a cough. Nothing that would concern you too much in a normal world, no worse than the common cold, and day-to-day I was generally doing okay.

From this point, symptoms largely came in what can only be described as ‘waves’, in the morning I’d feel great, by the afternoon, wiped. Determined not to lose my ‘daily fix’ of cycling, I kept my turbo sets going at a super low intensity, watching my heart rate and ignoring my power numbers. A couple of sets came accompanied with coughing fits, I could not for the life of me clear the tickle in my throat, and in the process of this, ended up I’m sure, doing more harm than good by trying to plough on through. But it became a bit of a vicious cycle for me, I’d feel fine, ride, feel poorly again, take a couple of days off, ride, feel poorly and so on. By the end of the week, my chest felt tight, breathing was impacted even by just walking up and down the stairs and reading my son Finlay his books at bedtime, required very frequent pauses as I caught my breath. I found that whispering the words made things easier as I didn’t have to bring my lungs to play in quite the same way, this I determined, was not normal.

It was around this time I woke up one night with a racing heart rate and pain in my chest that radiated up towards my neck and jaw. This was scary – and I was on the cusp of calling 999, wondering how much of it was psychosomatic vs something to medically be concerned about. Thankfully it subsided, and reassured it was all tension related, I was able to get back to bed. The following week saw an unrelenting cough, much worse when in bed at night, aches and pains, no fever thankfully.

Determined to keep going with work and family commitments I ploughed on through – both my husband and I are working full time from home, and caring for our two young children mutually in the process. I could have taken time off work, but that would have left me in sole charge of the kids which is actually far harder work, settling up in bed with my laptop and a cup of tea actually offered a little bit of time out, gratefully received! 🙂

Three weeks in, with symptoms becoming more intense, I ended up in A&E – breathless, with a horribly mucous-y cough and body aches like no other. I was seen immediately, with no-one else in the waiting room, and given a chest x-ray, blood tests and ECG within my 90 minute visit. The ECG was normal thankfully, but the chest x-ray showed pneumonia in my right lung and the blood tests markers of infection. I was prescribed a double dose of antibiotics – amoxicillin – along with a salbutamol inhaler, and as my sats were consistently above 96%, told I could thankfully home treat.

This followed with a week off the bike altogether, and I started to feel somewhat better, the inhaler offered good relief when I was feeling particularly breathless and the antibiotics seemed to make me more fatigued, but nevertheless, symptoms started to subside. I attempted to get back on the bike, only exceptionally gently, but this followed with a bit of a relapse, in which I started to get chest pain and breathlessness again – from which I’ve started a second course of antibiotics, doxycycline, to see if that can help take the final edge off things.

I wanted to write this as a bit of an insight, for other athletes in particular, to stress that it is not the everyday bug that you might pick up at this time of year. It’s incredibly unpredictable. I am not a poorly person, I’ve never had a sick day, things don’t tend to impact me too hard thankfully, but I was ‘hit like a brick’ with this. Normal practice does not apply – gentle exercise is normally great for me when I’m a little under the weather, and helps with recovery more than it does impede it. In this case, anything which puts any stress upon the body – talking too much on the phone, running up and down the stairs too fast, cycling, even at a steady pace – didn’t work in the same way.

Based on my experiences, to anyone going through something similar my feedback would be:

Rest. Mentally and physically. I am absolutely certain that I would have got over this far more quickly had I have eased off and relaxed, rather than try my best to continue on as normal. Your body needs all the reserves it can get. And always err on the side of caution here, as it’s so unpredictable.

Humidity helps. Be it a hot bath, a shower, or breathing in a bowl of steam/vicks with a towel over your head. These can help to relax and clear your head, as much as anything else.

Prioritise good food and vitamins. It’s perhaps been one of the only positive things to come out of this for me – the formation of good eating and nutritional habits. I’ve started taking magnesium, vitamin D and a more general multi-vitamin, and being more mindful about taking onboard healthier foods. I was living on a conveyor belt at the beginning of lockdown, working every hour of the day, not seeing anywhere near enough daylight, and eating for convenience not fuel. My skin is brighter, and although I’ve felt pretty dreadful with lurgy – I can feel that my body is functioning far more effectively than it has been.

Get sunshine and fresh air where you can. This seemed again to help me a lot, the mini-heatwave was an absolute blessing. Spending time outside really helped to open my lungs up and having my first tan/heathy glow in many years, was a great perk up!

Phone the docs/go to A&E if you’re worried. I ended up sitting on things for way too long, and really wish I hadn’t. The doctors were phenomenal, and said folk are not typically acting on their symptoms early enough. If you’ve been suffering for a while/your breathing gets to a worrying point – go and get yourself checked. For me the concerning symptoms were: chest pain, very mucous-y cough (secondary infection), shortness of breath, body aches and extreme fatigue. Trust your instinct, you know when things really are not right.

Watch your heart rate. My resting heart rate has been a good 8-10 beats higher than normal since this all began, and seems to rise when I’m having one of the waves of feeling particularly low. So this is useful to watch, to help tangibly see that your body is working harder than it should be. One thing worth noting, which was partly why I perhaps ended up riding when I shouldn’t have been, was that I felt great when I was on the bike (albeit at a very low intensity), and my heart rate was stable and in-keeping with what I would be recording when in full form. This offered false reassurance, leading me to believe that I was well and recovered, when I really should have been still resting.

So what’s next?

I’m treating each week as it comes, and will certainly not be rushing to get back to full fitness any time soon. Being in lockdown means I’m spending a lot more time with my husband and kids which I’m enjoying, and although the tag-team, back-to-back working day is pretty intense, and probably not helping speed my recovery up, we’re fortunate enough to love our jobs, and indeed to still be working, and I’m putting all my pent up ‘I can’t ride my bike’ frustration into the working/family/household day, which really is no bad thing!