To Train or Not to Train?
To train or not to train is a question every athlete will ask at some point when faced with a cold or the flu. Considering most athletes are very motivated there can be a lot of background conversations in their heads and guilt about losing fitness or being lazy. Sometimes it is okay to keep training with a lighter load or less intensity and other times it may be best to simply take a few days off.
Are you training for a particular event? Is that event soon or do you have some months until your event?
If you have some months until your event, take the time you need to get better. Taking a couple of days off from training won’t impact your overall goal. What will impact your overall goal is not taking the time you need now and losing a lot more training time when you develop a secondary infection such as bronchitis, a sinus infection or even pneumonia.
Even if you are close to your event, it may be better to take a few days off instead of continuing to push. It is common to get sick in the weeks leading up to an event as usually the training load is higher than usual and the body is under more stress than usual making it very susceptible to bugs. Make sure that you are taking the appropriate time now to rest to recover so that the illness does not linger and cause you to lose even more training. Remember, it’s always better to come into an event a little under trained rather than taking a ride on the struggle bus to the start line.
The general rule is that if you are feeling a cold in your neck up (stuffed up nose, headache, sore throat, sneezing), it’s fine to train if you are feeling up to it. You may find that a workout will loosen up the crud and give you a bit of a boost mentally and physically. Start with a short easy workout and see how you feel. This is not the time to be caught up or feel guilty for not hitting a certain mileage, pace, or effort level. If you had a particular workout planned, scrap that and instead aim for an easy general aerobic workout. Your body is already working hard and we don’t want to stress it more by trying to hit a particular pace or effort.
If you are feeling that your chest is tight and constricted, if you have a productive cough or if you are running a fever and/or feel achy, please bag training for the day and try and get some more rest if you can. A fever, in particular, indicates that your body is trying to fight off an infection. Adding more stress (and that’s just what training is) at that time isn’t going to help anything! Wait until a fever breaks and then access how you are feeling.
We know skipping work is not as easy as skipping training and thus there is the need sometimes for over-the-counter decongestants, fever reducers and pain relievers such as Ibuprofen or acetaminophen. It is fine to use these if you need to get through your day, but do not let the fact that you feel better on them fool you into thinking you are well enough to do your workout. If you are taking any type of medication to keep a fever down or feel better, make sure to really think about if it is smart to do a workout and will there really be any benefit? The answer, of course, is no.
Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever
This old saying isn’t speaking to an athlete! Remember to stay hydrated and make sure you are eating appropriately. Your appetite may be off (particularly if you’ve been running a fever) and things might not taste all that great. Hey, it’s another indication that you are sick! Making sure you are getting proper nutrition can only help your recovery and getting back to training.
Unfortunately, getting sick is a part of being human. The average adult gets a cold at least 1-2 times a year and for those with kids, who travel a lot or are prone to getting run down can expect more frequent bouts of illness.
The goal is to avoid getting sick as much as we can and recover as quickly as we can when we do. Hopefully this will lead to the least amount of interruption in your training and life as possible. Good nutrition and enough of it, quality sleep, frequent handwashing are all things that can help avoid illness.
Once you feel a cold coming on or there are a few things you can do to feel better. Some have more science behind them than others and some have better anecdotal or placebo effect but either way, if it works for you to feel better give it a try.
If you’ve had a cold, you can expect symptoms to ease after 2-3 days. You may still have lingering congestion and coughing for 1 - 2 weeks. Let your energy level and congestion dictate a return to activities. If your sleep is still disrupted for whatever reason, make trying to get more sleep a priority even if that means skipping a workout.
An influenza virus lasts longer and typically has more debilitating symptoms like fever, achiness and severe coughing. Be careful with resuming activities after having the flu as you may still be surprisingly weak. It’s always rather humbling to think that you had no problem running 5 miles before a flu but finding just walking up the stairs to your house exhausting when sick with a flu. Don’t worry! Your energy will come back as you recover but trying to come back too soon can’t help your training.
Hopefully the congestion gradually goes away and you’ll notice you are feeling like your old self. Great! Should you feel that you are still really dragging or are overly tired, be alert to the possibility of a secondary infection such as a nasal infection. Don’t wait if you feel something may be off. Get it checked out and dealt with sooner rather than later. We want you to be healthy and ready to go!
We know that for some of you (Coach included!), it will still be hard to make a decision but here is something a coach told me long ago that has helped me and might help you too:
“Choose to give your body a break before your body chooses a longer break for you."
I would rather choose to be out a few days versus missing a lot more time out of the roads or trails. Go drink plenty of fluids, have some chicken soup and rest. You will be back out there soon!