Vojtěch 'Vojta' Hačecký is a former pro cyclist. A European champion and runner-up at the World Championships on track, Vojta quit cycling two years ago and started a new career at Dr. Jiří Dostál's renowned sports lab Centrum Sportovní Medicíny (Centre of Sports Medicine) in Prague.

What was it that hit your clients harder – restrictions or health problems?

When the first lock-down was imposed, competitions started to get canceled and the Olympics got postponed, initially most athletes suffered psychologically. For many the games were supposed to be the peak of their career. Instead there was uncertainty. It was hard to find motivation. Some even considered quitting their careers prematurely. And that was even before deaths within families and circles of friends occurred. On the other hand, the individuals who are mentally more resilient realised they might benefit from the new situation. Take cycling for instance, where the season stretches to ten months leaving very little time for training. All of a sudden an opportunity arose to do a volume of training you couldn't do otherwise. Or athletes who suffer from permanent overstrain and chronic fatigue were forced to recover involuntarily. Paradoxically many athletes recorded their personal bests when they returned to competition.

Every cloud does have a silver lining, then?

People were forced to be more flexible. They had to adapt to a situation of constant uncertainty. An upcoming race may be canceled, they may test positive or even fall ill. Those who learned how to manage this uncertainty gained a significant advantage over those who suffered from fear and anxiety. Travel restrictions didn't affect everybody in the same way. For professional athletes traveling abroad to train or race is part of their job so it mostly remained possible. But for amateurs traveling became almost impossible for a long period of time. On the other hand, those who could easily take their work elsewhere and had the freedom to do it could decamp long term to a place where they could ideally combine training and working.

How did you deal with clients who had psychological problems?

We usually refer them to specialists – psychologists or mental coaches we work with and trust. There is a post-covid syndrome present even on the mental level. Many people started thinking differently. They were provided with a new aspect of professional sport, the main focus of their lives for years. They could take a step back and see a wider picture in which sport doesn't fill the whole view. For some it meant a loss of focus and commitment but from the general point of view it was positive for them to realise there was life outside sport.   

Your centre works closely with the Czech Olympic Committee. What were the repercussions of the postponement of the Games?

Some athletes wanted to end their careers after the Games or at the end of the season. With them it was a matter of maintaining or extending motivation. It is doubly difficult to train hard for an event that may not even take place at all in the end. But mostly they are experienced athletes and they manage to cope pretty well. And most of them are fitter now than they were a year ago and that helps them mentally.

What remains unclear is the overall atmosphere in which the Games will take place. It looks like we won't know this until the very last moment but from what we're hearing, there will be many problems. Czech athletes will have to take regular flights because of the current problems with Russia. That increases the risk of infection. There will be daily testing in Tokyo. Participants will be enclosed in the double bubble of hotel/stadium. Athletes will not be allowed to arrive earlier than five days in advance of their event. Cycling races take place far away from Tokyo. There will probably be no opening ceremony. Only TV crews will have access to athletes. Other media will only get to them online.

Back to Covid-19 now. What about athletes who came down with it? Did you have to alter their training schedule? Did it complicate matters for you?

Not really. It very much depended on the severity of the infection. The most important thing was to not underestimate the illness. Some people went back to training too fast and ended up battling post-covid symptoms for several months. Those who didn't rush it and waited until full recovery were able to return to full training faster and without consequences. Clinical results are beginning to show that covid had no significant effect on top athletes' VO2 max numbers.

Do you think a rushed return to training in amateurs who are not as highly trained could be more dangerous?

We put all our clients through a stress test four weeks after the illness. That's a long enough period for them to recover fully. If the result is not 100%, we give them an echocardiogram test. We take it very seriously. Ignoring warning signs could have grave consequences.

How do you alter training plans for clients who have undergone covid?

I order them two weeks of no physical activity. In the following two weeks I let them start training and build up the load gradually. Of course, there have been individuals who couldn't hold on and returned to training earlier. Subjective feeling does play an important role. Some athletes know their bodies so well that they can follow their gut feeling and not put a foot wrong. But I know of a female athlete who increased her training load fast and sharp and ended up having to take two months completely off.

What would be your advice for amateur athletes who have had covid?

I would advise them to use their common sense. If you're not feeling well, don't ride, run or whatever you do. If you're feeling fatigued, not properly recovered, take it very easy. Read your body, not the race schedule. It's much better to skip a race or two than spend two, three months not being able to do anything. And I'm only talking covid with mild or moderate symptoms. Recovery from severe symptom covid is another kettle of fish.

Have any of your clients had severe covid?

Luckily not. Some had moderate symptoms but as far as I know no one had to be hospitalised. Severe symptoms go hand in hand with excess weight. There are many causes of breathing problems: being overweight, smoking, breathing incorrectly. Covid primarily affects your lungs and it becomes more serious if there are additional factors at play.

Does it mean that being fit will protect you from severe symptoms and serious health problems?

Definitely. But it's not guaranteed. There is an Olympic medalist who got very seriously ill with covid. But he did pull through eventually. Practising a sport sensibly, which in amateurs means first and foremost not overstraining oneself, stimulates the immune system among other beneficial things. Overstraining oneself, knowingly or unknowingly, includes overstraining the immune system. An overstained immune system cannot provide effective protection against covid or other diseases.

To conclude, how did the restrictions impact children and their physical activity?

Here it looks like we have a big problem brewing. Children immersed themselves in the online world during the restrictions and now they don't feel like going back to their sports clubs. The educational authorities put all sports activities aside as unnecessary and children grew lazy. They found other activities to entertain themselves, made new friends. We will feel the effect of this much further down the road. In 10-15 years time when they should reach their sporting maturity. One whole generation will be impacted by this. Children who never started doing a sport due to the restrictions may never start now if they don't come from a family that encourages it. The faster we start to look for ways out of this problem, the better.


 written by: Jan Krofta
photos: Jan Krofta, Vojtěch Hačecký - personal archive

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