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Student Athletes and Return to Play after COVID-19: When is it Safe?

While student athletes sidelined by COVID-19 might be anxious to resume their involvement with sports, healthcare experts recommend a set of gradual “return to play” guidelines.

“People need to understand that healthcare professionals want to see these athletes back competing on the field or court, too,” said Anna Richie, MD, clinical director, Memorial ExpressCare. “We just want them to do it safely so there is minimal danger of a relapse or additional complications from the COVID-19 virus.”

Before the recommended Graduated Return to Play (GRTP) guidelines can be considered, the athlete must have isolation clearance from their local health department, return-to-play clearance from the athlete’s physician for mild symptoms (or a cardiologist’s clearance for moderate to severe symptoms) and the athlete must be asymptomatic when performing normal activities of daily living.

Once cleared, the GRTP guidelines include:

  • First and second day: 15 minutes of light activity, which can include walking, light jogging, stationary bike. No resistance training.
  • Third day: 30 minutes of the same, plus simple movement activities like running drills. No resistance training.
  • Fourth day: 45 minutes. Athlete can progress to more complex training and add light resistance training.
  • Fifth and sixth day: 60 minutes with normal training activities.
  • Seventh day: A return to full activity/participation including entire practices, games or competition.

“COVID-19 affects each person differently,” Richie said. “Some athletes take more than three weeks to recover. Others with medical conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular issues or renal disease may need a longer recovery process before starting GRTP. It is important not to rush these kids back to competition if they haven’t completed the appropriate steps.”

Parents and guardians of student athletes are encouraged to speak to their child’s primary care doctor about specific concerns regarding when it is safe for their student athlete to return to sports after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

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