A doctor answers your triathlete-specific coronavirus questions: Can I catch it in the gym? Should I fly to my destination race?

UPDATED: March 15, 2020: Public health officials worldwide are now emphasizing the need for ‘social distancing’ in order to minimize the spread of coronavirus. This includes limiting your exposure to large groups and public spaces, such as gyms or cycling classes.

As we become increasingly concerned about the global spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), large events like races are being cancelled and people are taking steps to minimize their chances of catching or spreading the illness. Triathletes have their own set of questions about coronavirus: Should I race? Should I change my training? Is it safe to go to the gym? Can I catch coronavirus in the pool?

Both Super League and the ITU World Triathlon Series postponed their first races of the season due to coronavirus concerns. USA Track and Field canceled their Masters Indoor National Championships and the Boston Marathon has now rescheduled for September. The Los Angeles Marathon supplied its aid stations with masks and hand sanitizer. And with the World Health Organization labeling it a global pandemic yesterday, you should expect far more races and events to be indefinitely postponed or cancelled in the coming weeks.

Triathletes should be concerned about coronavirus and its spread, but not panicked, says Dr. Leah Roberts of SteadyMD and the team physician for I Race Like a Girl. Though you should follow some basic practices to reduce your risk of acquiring or spreading coronavirus, these are mostly things you should have been doing all along: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and be more generally conscious of hygiene.

And, as Roberts explains, your training may actually have prepared you for this moment: “Thanks to adequate sleep, good nutrition, and balanced training of hard workouts and recovery, most athletes have a robust immune system. They may acquire the coronavirus, but will be able to fight it off.”


Staying Healthy:

How to Train and Eat to Boost Your Immunity from Coronavirus
The Triathlete’s Guide to Dealing With Illness


However, as has been increasingly discussed by public health officials, even if you’re healthy and able to fight off an illness like coronavirus, the systemic challenge is if you spread the virus to those who are less healthy or at risk—especially since the virus is airborne and can be spread before you show symptoms. It’s because of these concerns about decreasing the overall public health costs that cities are implementing restrictions around large gatherings, that the NBA has indefinitely put the rest of its season on hold, and that you’re likely facing some race postponements or cancellations in the near future.

wash your hands triathletes coronavirus
Wash your hands. Photo: Getty Images

Here, Roberts gives the straight talk on your coronavirus Qs:

As a triathlete, what can I do to avoid coronavirus while at the gym?

First and foremost, wipe down equipment with cleaning wipes before and after use. Your gym has likely provided these all along, but most people haven’t used them (until now). As a result, gym equipment can get pretty grody: One study revealed there are 362 times more bacteria on free weights in a gym than a public toilet seat. (Are you grossed out yet? Good. Now wipe down your treadmill already.)

If possible, use a water bottle that has a lid, where the mouth piece is covered – this will prevent viral respiratory droplets from another gym member from going directly into your mouth.

Additionally, Roberts says to limit the amount of face touching, hair fixing, sweat wiping with your hands while working out. When you’re done with your workout, wash your hands – especially before eating your post-workout meal or recovery shake.

And if you have a home gym, then now’s the time to start using it.

Can a triathlete contract coronavirus in the pool?

The CDC currently says there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can spread through pools or hot tubs—though certainly if you’re in a lane at Masters with seven other people and one of them is coughing next to you, then you could catch what they have.

“The predominant way of spreading the virus is through respiratory droplets,” explains Roberts. “To date, there are no studies showing how humid warm air affects transmission of these respiratory droplets, but I would speculate that unless another athlete coughs within a few feet of your mouth, the probability of acquiring the virus is low.”

There are also no studies at this time that show how long the virus can survive outside of the body on objects (such as the pool deck and swim toys). To be safe, use the same approach as the gym (above).

Should I be wearing a mask during training or racing?

“No,” Roberts says. “Masks should be reserved for those with cough and fever — if you have either, you shouldn’t be racing [or training].” That really should go without saying.

The World Health Organization, right now, is advising that masks should only be used for those who are sick or have a cough, in order to prevent them from spreading germs like coronavirus. For triathletes who are healthy, however, masks aren’t recommended. Masks leave space between the mask and the nose and mouth, especially among those untrained in their use. Most people who wear them will also move them aside frequently — to eat, to scratch their nose, to talk – using their (very likely dirty) hands, which can bring virus particles to easy ports of entry in the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Tokyo Marathon coronavirus
The Tokyo Marathon was limited to only elite runners, due to coronavirus concerns. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Triathlons: What can I do to minimize my risk for coronavirus in crowded races?

The good news is that triathlon and running events are held outside, so triathletes have a lower risk of coronavirus transmission than being in confined spaces with many people. Still, transmission is possible by touching contaminated surfaces (like goody bags, bathroom doors, and shared bike pumps in transition), so limit the amount you touch your face and mouth before, during, and after the race.

What about the aid stations, where who-knows-how-many volunteers and athletes touch the cups, food, or supplies? “I would carry on as planned with regards to aid stations and race plan execution,” Roberts says, noting most race directors are making even more of an effort to keep their aid stations as hygienic as possible. Ditto for refueling afterwards: “Eat! Calories are extremely important immediately after a race. Just be sure to use hand sanitizer or wash hands before eating anything from the buffet.”

Ironman also announced this week a number of steps to minimize risk at events that are not cancelled or postponed, such as allowing athletes to get materials digitally, and eliminating handshakes on the podiums and cancelling pro athlete interviews. And if you’re feeling sick or unwell, or may have been exposed, most race organizers (including Ironman) have asked you to stay home—even if your race isn’t cancelled.

However, the odds that your race isn’t cancelled or postponed in the coming weeks is low. (More on that below.)

Should I scale back my triathlon training to keep my immune system able to fight off coronavirus?

As with races, the good thing about triathlon training is it’s mostly done outside and not in confined spaces. The other good thing is, for the most part, moderate training makes your immune system healthier. It’s only when we reach extreme levels of stress from training that our immune systems begin to be compromised.

“If the body is not getting adequate recovery, then the immune system can be compromised,” says Roberts. “A compromised immune system means an inability to fight off a pathogen such as coronavirus, flu, common cold, or bacteria.” But as long as your training plan is allowing you to feel recovered (rather than fatigued or burned out physically and mentally), there is no reason to scale back. The smartest triathletes are tuned into their body and will recognize when they are feeling a little ‘off’ – this is the time to dial back.

Review your training plan and lifestyle. Is there a balance of training and recovery? Are you fueling properly before, during, and after your workout? Are you getting enough sleep? How about rest days: Are you truly resting? These questions can help any triathlete evaluate how they can help their body best meet the demands of training (and fighting coronavirus).

The other consideration is whether now is the time to up your volume and intensity — or even to do a super challenging race, like a marathon or half-Ironman. As our sibling site, PodiumRunner, reports, there is a significant decrease in your body’s ability to fight anything off post-marathon or with extremely intense training. That’s when you need to be most cautious. (Check out their tips for boosting your immune system too.)

Is it safe to fly to my destination race?

“Flying to the destination is safe as long as precautions are taken – the same ones as in the gym,” says Roberts, who notes that some may encounter problems re-entering the United States if travel was to a COVID-19 hot spot.

Earlier this week, President Trump announced the U.S. has suspended travel from Europe for 30 days. In practice, that means the entry of most foreign nationals who have been in certain European countries at any point during the prior 14 days will be prevented from entering the United States. So that may ultimately answer many triathletes questions about coronavirus travel—and expect more guidance soon.

Additionally, public health officials are recommending limiting non-essential travel, especially to virus hot spots—primarily in order to decrease the risk of spreading the illness in crowded places.

What if my triathlon or race is cancelled because of concerns over coronavirus?

Right now, a number of triathlons have already been cancelled or postponed, and expect that list to grow. You can see our full list of races — triathlon, running, and cycling — that have been rescheduled or canceled.

Ironman has also announced some policies for races that are postponed or cancelled: athletes will be registered automatically for the rescheduled race and if a race is cancelled athletes can automatically defer to the same race in 2021. Decisions on postponements or cancellations will be made by each race locally.

You can check Ironman’s website for new information and your specific race’s social media for changes.

Here’s how to deal with the anxiety and stress of race cancellations because of coronavirus.