That is the question—during two key times—when you’re sick, and when you’re dealing with a minor injury. Being that it’s February, the flu has run rampant through many parts of Montana, and that I just had to deal with this question personally, today I’m going to focus on the question dealing with sickness:
“When should I resume training after being sick?” or for those a bit more hard core, “Should I train even though I’m sick?”
Obviously the answer will depend of several factors, and we’ll consider some general guidelines. But first, a story:
They say there are two guarantees in life: death and taxes. Well, I can add a third to mine. Every year, I can count on either, a bad cold around Christmas, or that nondescript illness that is more than a cold and perhaps less than the flu, sometime in February. Perhaps it is a mild flu. But you know that one I mean. For me, it means a couple of days in bed with no energy and sinus blockage/chest congestion for another week after that.
Well, chalk up two years in a row with that one. One of the many nice elements of keeping a training journal, is that you can look back not only on your past workouts, but also look at how external things like sickness affected your training in the past. My training journal is online through Garmin, so it’s very easy to go back and look at my notes. Last year, after taking a few days off with my February cold/flu thing, the first attempt at exercise is titled: “Bless your little heart”. Here are the notes from the workout:
- Sits in sauna
- Swims 200 ENTIRE meters
- Hacks out half a lung
Clearly, in this case, I was not ready to resume training. I ended up taking an additional three days off. In my younger days, I probably wouldn’t have taken as many (or perhaps any) days off. I probably would’ve pushed through. And honestly, perhaps I would’ve extended my misery by not allowing my body to heal.
So, with that story as a backdrop, let’s look at some guidelines to help you know when it’s time to get back in the game.
First, obviously the type and severity of the illness is going to dictate whether or not you train. If you have a fever, even a slight one, you most likely aren’t going to feel like exercising anyway. So don’t. This advice is more for those hard core, or competitive athletes that don’t want to miss a single training day. When we are ill, our body’s immune system mobilizes its comprehensive defense system against the foreign invader. It needs resources to wage this attack. So the top things your body needs while battling infection are rest, hydration, and good nutrition. Exercise, if we’re feeling like garbage, can and probably should wait. Let your body rest, and have all available resources available for your immune system to fight the illness. Also, stay out of the gym if you have had a fever within 24 hours, or if you’re coughing and sneezing every other breath. No one wants what you have.
Once you’re past the worst of the illness, the second thing I consider is my energy level. Do I even have enough energy to train? I’ve definitely made the mistake of training again too soon and then feeling like I regressed physically, or feeling like I gave the illness that I thought I had beaten a new foothold. Ask yourself, “Will exercising make me feel better or worse?” If you think the answer is worse, then it’s not worth it. If you do return to training, make sure your first day back is easy. Like really easy. You’re just testing the waters. Just getting yourself moving. Don’t try to jump right back to where you were prior to getting sick.
Last week, as I was beginning to feel better, I was hoping to make an afterwork xc ski session with some friends. My energy had been better for a couple of days, but I certainly didn’t feel 100%. I also still had a lot of sinus and chest congestion. When I left my office it was clear and sunny outside—which was tempting—but it was also really cold. The air stung a bit in my throat and lungs. I thought about how easy it would be to feel chilled. “Will exercising make me feel better or worse?” I decided I needed to skip the session. I could always try again next week.
So to conclude, here is a little checklist for next time you have to answer that question, “To train, or not to train?”, while recovering from an illness. Listen to your body, and ask yourself:
- Am I prioritizing rest, hydration, and good nutrition?
- Do I have enough energy to train?
- Will exercising make me feel better or worse?
If your answers are yes/yes/better, and you aren’t in danger of infecting others that might be training around you, then go for it, but take it easy until you’re feeling 100% again, and keep prioritizing rest, hydration, and good nutrition throughout your full recovery.
Of course, it’s a pretty good idea to prioritize rest, hydration and good nutrition all the time, right? That strategy could actually help prevent you from becoming ill in the first place!