The twins just started at daycare last week so I have been expecting a wave of illness to sweep through our house at any moment. Sure enough, Sunday evening post-workout I felt a tickle in my throat and by Tuesday morning Callen awoke with a seal bark. Poor guy.
Despite feeling a little off on Monday, I fully planned on going to my evening swim workout after work. I had 2 hours at home with the kids after work and before swim (8:30pm). During that time, I felt progressively worse – sore throat, really swollen glands and increasingly tired.
By the time Michael got home for the kiddo handoff, I’d made up my mind. I just needed to sleep. I felt like some rest now might stave off the cold entirely. I was torn, though, because skipping a planned workout feels weak. And I don’t want Ironman training to get infused with weakness and lack of commitment, especially this early on.
Ultimately, my yearning to sleep overpowered my will to train. I went to bed at 9pm and woke at 7am on Tuesday morning. It was glorious.
Unfortunately, my scratchy throat was still present on Tuesday. I took some ibuprofen and got on with my life. These types of illnesses almost always seem more dire in the early mornings and late evenings, don’t they?
Anyway, I realized there was a time not that long ago when I would have either berated myself about not working out OR (rewind a few years further) I wouldn’t have been caught dead training unless conditions were absolutely optimal.
It’s interesting how we evolve over time as athletes, isn’t it?
So, what to do if you’re an otherwise healthy athlete who starts feeling sick?
In my option, there’s a mental and a physical element to all of this:
I believe your decision should hinge on what phase of training you’re in and what you’re training for, obviously. But beyond that, what matters is how sick you are and your current mental ‘need’ to train (meaning: is one rest day going to undermine the rest of your training program or can you take it in stride?).
Let’s assume that you’re training for a long endurance event like Ironman or a marathon, in which case missing one or two workouts is not going to undermine your efforts. In fact, staying healthy should be a priority for you.
In terms of how sick you are, if you have a flu-like symptoms or a cold with a fever, rest. Your body needs to focus all energy on getting better. If you are an otherwise healthy person battling a head cold, like I am this week, you can definitely train. You should just ensure that the duration of exercise is shorter than usual and the intensity is much lower. Any benefit you would get usually from a high intensity training session, if you can make it through one, will be offset by the excess strain you put on your body.
A few caveats: If, in your gut, you’re at the start of a cold, and you feel like resting will help reduce its severity, by all means, do it. That’s what I did this week. Even though I still have a sore throat, my cold hasn’t progressed AND I’m really well-rested. How often can us moms say that?
If you’re experiencing coughing fits that won’t subside through OTC treatment, you might want to replace running with biking or core. And if your head is full of mucus, avoid the pool!
Now, your mental need to keep moving. There’s a lot of momentum that builds in training programs. If you compare the difficulty of starting an exercise program to continuing an exercise program, there’s no question that for most people starting is substantially harder than maintaining. An object in motion stays in motion, right?
So, if you’re one of those people who absolutely must execute every workout on your plan no matter what, I get it. You’re going to have to make a judgment call. If you’re really sick (fever), you need to rest. Period. Do your best to come to terms with missing the workout and move on. Don’t dwell. Just because it happened once, does not mean it will happen again. If you have a head cold and you feel you absolutely must get in your 5 mile /45 min speed run, go for a 35-40 min run, but keep the intensity low (zone 1 or 2).
Whatever you do, don’t try to make up for lost workouts later in the week or in future weeks. That’s a really good way to get injured.
Finally, if you are sick, you may be contagious. In that case, it is courteous to keep your germs away from others and out of the gym so keep that in mind when deciding if / how to train.
Training Type Depends on Intensity of Illness and Athlete’s Mental Need to TrainDuring training, our immune systems can become compromised. We are purposefully stressing the body so that it gets faster, stronger and, for endurance athletes, can go longer. We really need to limit our exposure to sick people and practice basic preventative hygiene like frequent hand washing.
One of the Ironman books that I have even suggests limiting contact socially for a few weeks leading up to your race to ensure you don’t catch a bug! If any healthy person wants to come take care of my germ monster kids for me in July, just shout.
Here’s hoping that you don’t need to reference this article at all this season. Happy Training!