Training and Illness

Its flu season. A lot of people get sick around this time of year, and its generally pretty miserable. I’ve had clients get sick and have to miss workouts recently, and a few weeks ago I came down with the flu myself, which lead to an ear infection and a week of antibiotics. Not exactly the best feeling in the world – I could hardly get out of bed and was felt terrible all day. But this year, unlike in the past, I decided to follow my own advice and not get back into training at the first sign of feeling well. I actually gave my body time to recover, and it worked out for the best.

One of the most important things to do when you’re sick is to minimize stress. Adding stress to your body when it is sick is only going to make it worse, and exercise is certainly the kind of stress that will make it worse. Its also a kind of stress you can control. Life stress, work stress, relationships, kids, money, all that can’t be completely controlled by you, but your workouts can. So while you can try to minimize stress from those sources while you’re sick, and you should, you can directly control stress from exercise. This is where we often run into a problem – a week (or more) off of our exercise plan seems like a way to lose all the gains we have worked for. Losing muscle, gaining fat, losing endurance or strength, getting out of a routine, or a combination of these are all reasons for getting back in the gym too soon. At the first sign of feeling better, so many of us just jump right back in to our normal workout routines and try to pick up where we left off. Or worse, we try to make up for lost time.

Either way, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you don’t give your body time to recover from illness, and begin adding stressors to it while its sick, you’re inviting the illness to take hold of your body again. I personally have experienced this basically every time I’ve gotten sick and have been training seriously for something. It goes something like this:

  1. Notice I might be getting sick. Ignore it, because I don’t want to be sick.
  2. Definitely sick. Stop training, continue eating healthy.
  3. Still sick. I’m not training.
  4. Feeling a little better. Back to training.
  5. Feeling a lot worse after step 4, so back to step 3.
  6. Finally give my body enough rest to recover and ease myself back into training.

If I’m really motivated, sometimes I’ll repeat that little cycle of steps 3-5 over again just to really send the message to my body that I don’t want to be sick. I’m not sure its getting the message. The whole thing can end up taking 2 weeks to recover from, where if I just let my body recover, I’d have been 100% in a week. Was it worth it?

In almost every case, absolutely not. That extra day or two or three of rest is absolutely going to be more beneficial than risking another week of being sick. I’ll use myself as an example. For the first 3 days or so of being sick, I was basically unable to get out of bed – it was awful. The next 3 days I was feeling better, and by day 8 or 9 I was back to feeling normal again. I took the entire 8 days off of training save for a short easy bike ride one day. It was hard, but I knew that was what I should do. Then I went back to training. Now, I will admit that there was some initial strength and endurance loss. I couldn’t quite hit numbers I could hit before getting the flu, but I was surprisingly close – I hadn’t lost as much as I expected (well, that’s not true – I basically knew what I would lose from a week of being sick. I hadn’t lost as much as my worried mind convinced me that I would lose, which could basically be summed up as ‘all of your fitness’). I’ve heard this from clients as well. A week off will not ruin your plans or prevent you from achieving your goals. It’s a hell of a lot better than two weeks off because you rushed your recover. And even that is better than three weeks off because you made that mistake twice (speaking from personal experience).

Other than staying out of the gym or avoiding strenuous activity, what else should you be doing? The Mayo Clinic suggest staying hydrated, rest, using a humidifier, drinking warm liquids and treating the symptoms of a cold or flu (obviously, every illness has its own treatment but these are good general pieces of advice). While just working out can be rest, it is also important to get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep can delay how long it takes you to get over a cold and all sorts of other issues. While you should be getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night anyway, its especially important when you’re ill or injured.

Staying hydrated is also super important. Its often harder to stay hydrated when you’re sick due to losing extra fluids and not being as thirsty. However, it is extremely important to continue to drink water and increase how much you drink compared to when you are not sick. Being dehydrated will slow down the healing process and will actually make you feel worse. Warm liquids often help break up mucus which can improve breathing, and taking things to reduce the symptoms of a cold or the flu can make the suffering significantly less. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about how to best manage your symptoms, but listen to the advice that they give and don’t try to do your workouts anyway. You’ll lose a lot more by rushing your recovery than you would if you just wait until you’re better.