Marathons

Helping Runners With Long Covid Get Back on Their Feet

At 17 years old, Nia Raquelle Smith enlisted in the Navy, and subsequently hurt her legs in a training accident, sustaining injuries that left her with nerve damage and on crutches for nine months. She was told that she’d never run again, and, determined to prove her doctors wrong, proceeded to run three marathons.

Now, at 36, she is drawing on that experience as motivation to fight through her current setback: long-haul Covid symptoms so severe that until three months ago she could barely walk up a flight of stairs without needing an inhaler. Ms. Smith, who lives in Brooklyn, had planned to run in the 2020 New York City Marathon, which was eventually canceled; instead she has deferred that entry to the 2023 race.

“This is going to be an even bigger challenge,” she said.

As a veteran, she is being treated at the Margaret Cochran Corbin Campus of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System and the New York University Veterans Clinic. There, as at many of the post-Covid-19 recovery clinics that have sprung up around the country, athletic ambitions are part of patients’ rehabilitation goals. Since the syndrome, sometimes known as post-Covid or long Covid, is still not well understood, doctors are throwing the kitchen sink at helping these patients get better — and get back to sport. They are adapting treatments used for other illnesses, and also — with permission — drawing data from athletes’ personal fitness trackers, like Apple Watches, Garmins and Fitbits, which endurance athletes use to tell them how fast and far they went. Some models also continuously track their heart rates to give clinicians a better look at how recovery is going, or not.

The inability to be physically active can hamper recovery, too. “It can become a downward spiral of not feeling well to not being as active, to endurance dropping, so activity levels further drop,” said Dr. Benjamin Abramoff, director of the post-Covid Assessment and Recovery Clinic at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, which opened in June 2020. Athletic patients have also lost a piece of their identity, as well as access to a valve for stress relief.

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