Training when sick: everything you need to know
“It’s just a sniffle, I can still train…" This is the sentence that heralds most time off from training through sickness. Should you train when sick, or should you rest? This guide has you covered
Training in winter is epic. Whether you do it for the crisp, clean air or the flow of endorphins that come from hitting the hills in the wind and rain like a Rocky training montage it's hugely rewarding. But it’s also the time of year we’re most susceptible to getting sick and training when we're sick can be a reallly bad idea.
Knowing when to lay off is the key, but this is a very difficult line to tread. Sometimes though, it’s absolutely the smart decision.
Not only that but understanding how to cope in the face of time away from training is an important skill every endurance athlete should master.
In this article, we guide you through the decision-making process and what you can do to promote recovery. We also touch on coping strategies and how you can still progress as an athlete even when you’re not training.
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When should I stop training if I'm sick?
It’d be impossible to remotely diagnose whether you should train or not, but there are some general rules to follow. Before that, though, it’s worth confirming that you are indeed ill and not suffering from post-exercise immunosuppression, the symptoms of which can present similarly to common illness.
The classic advice is the ‘neck rule’: If symptoms are solely above the neck then generally it’s ok to train, albeit at a light intensity. Symptoms below the neck require time off. To us this means:
It’s ok to train when you're sick if:
- It really is just a sniffle, and you’ve merely got a bit of a runny nose
- Your throat is a little scratchy, but it isn’t painful to swallow
- You’ve got a slight headache but certainly not pounding
Don’t train when you're sick if:
- There’s phlegm in your chest and you’re wheezing
- Your nose is streaming
- You have a temperature
- You feel shivery
- It’s painful to swallow
- Your glands are swollen
Knowing when to get cosy with a water bottle is a skill to master
As you can see, there’s more ‘don’t run if’s’, because it’s always better to err on the side of caution. I’ll repeat that: err on the side of caution.
If you’re not sure which camp you fall into, then don’t train. Better to lose one training day and knock it on the head than risk it developing into three days off.
Is there anything I can do while I'm sick?
Well, yes actually.
Look at it with the right perspective and being ill can be a blessing. You may not be able to hit the trails, but with a show of hands how many of you work on your flexibility? Your core? Your posture?
I don’t see many raised hands…
But now is the ideal time to address these neglected aspects of fitness. You can keep warm and cosy but get on the carpet and go through a daily stretching routine or easy core workout. A foam roller is your friend to work out those tight spots.
Light yoga is great for training when you can’t tackle the elements
What can I do to shift the bugger? An athlete's approaching to dealing with illness
You’ve taken the first step: ceasing training means your immune system can work on your recovery.
After keeping warm, the next thing to beat the bugs is ensuring you’re well hydrated.
A cold glass of tap water isn’t hugely appealing, so keep the teapot topped up and the classic hot water with lemon and honey works a charm.
Eat your way to health and resume training asap
The biggest box to tick comes through getting your nutrition right.
When it comes to food, it goes without saying that nutrient-dense, whole foods are the best route to recovery.
You might feel like a Double Bacon McWhopperBap is what the doctor ordered but it isn’t (unless you’ve a really crappy doctor).
Superfoods – particularly those ideal for athletes – are a great place to start. But some are more immune-boosting than others. Food such as flaxseeds, goji berries, spirulina, walnuts, cinnamon, turmeric, cacao and cranberries are fantastic. Add all / a combination of these to a morning smoothie and you’re well on your way.
A healthy immune-boosting diet is not boring and certainly shouldn’t be lacking in flavour. There are some seriously tasty superfoods out there, such as dark chocolate and shredded coconut, which you can use to boost many dishes.
Make sure you keep the good fats coming too, particularly Omega-3.
Now we’re talking. Load up on the good stuff
When can I get back to training?
I would advise giving yourself one full day of feeling ‘normal’ before starting again. Don’t hit it the first day you wake up without any symptoms. Keep the hydration and good nutrition going and by the following day, you’ll be ready to rock.
How to bounce back to full training
Simple. Start easy.
Your risk of infection is still high, so keep intensity low. No threshold or hill efforts!
Enjoy the simple pleasure of moving and getting the endorphins flowing again.
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Mental tips for athletes to cope with illness
Being sick plays on the mind and it’s worth having strategies up your sleeve to deploy when you’re side-lined.
- Keep some perspective. Be aware that taking three to five days off training is not really going to hinder your overall progress. Better yet, expect to have two or three bouts of illness over winter and they’ll be easier to cope with when (if) they do come
- Keep a training log. That’ll help remind you how much you have done when it feels like you’re standing still.
- Reconnect. Use the free time to (re)connect with friends and family (maybe via Skype, you don’t want to pass this on, after all)
- Try to relax and enjoy it if you can. At the end of the day, how often do you get time off from training? Appreciating a break from it will make time off more bearable
- Improve your performance knowledge. Read a book, listen to podcasts or watch YouTube to garner new training ideas or listen to inspiring stories. Check out the 33Fuel Podcast and our YouTube channel for a fix.
Give yourself permission to enjoy a good book when you’re side-lined from training
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