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Training while sick

Try as we might, we all get sick every now and again. Hopefully it’s infrequently and we recover quickly when we do. But how do we modify our training schedule when it happens? There are plenty of “heroes” out there that push through injury and sickness, never missing a workout or taking a day off that wasn’t already written into their training plan from the start. As much as it can make us feel like a bad ass when we imitate the fictional Bruce Denton, we know that it’s not the best way to train.

We should always be tracking our resting heart rate. If the resting heart rate is elevated, then we’re not ready for a quality workout. It’s as simple as that. We aren’t going to get anything out of it because our body isn’t ready to give us the effort required to get the physiological stimulus we’re looking for. More importantly, it isn’t ready to recover from such an endeavor. And if we’re not recovering from the workout, we’re not going to get anything out of it besides “getting tough”. And as Shawn Venable, a track coach at Liberty University says, “Tough is for stupid.” Yes, it’s important to be physically and mentally tough in endurance athletics. But you have to be smart and keep an eye on the bigger picture, too.

When we’re sick, we’re functionally doing a long workout all day long. For the entire duration of the sickness. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many folks that do the Marathon des Sables and decide to do a hard core track session in the middle of it. Or even right afterwards. It’s not like those folks are going extremely fast at any given point, but they are working all day long in the middle of the Moroccan Sahara. When we’re sick, we’re in a similar situation. Our metabolism is firing full steam, especially if we have a fever (that extra heat has to come from somewhere), working hard to fight off whatever the infection is. From a metabolic perspective it’s the same thing as a long, hard, training effort.

The good news is that we can normally stay active if we’re a little under the weather. If we just have a head cold or we’re a little down for a day or two, we can treat it like we’ve had a hard workout and we need to recover from it. We probably shouldn’t get too crazy, but our normal recovery day workouts should work just fine. Most of my folks normally have anywhere from 20-40 min easy effort (depending on training history, modality, and the intensity of the last hard workout), and maybe some light lifting. The key point here is to remember that we’re already getting our workout in by fighting off the illness. The metabolism is revved up, we’re burning extra calories to make some extra heat, and we’re engaging a lot of the same metabolic engines we use in our endurance training. Any extra work needs to be easy and light.

If we’re really sick and we’re running a fever, then we probably need to take the day “off”. I say off in quotations because if we’re sick enough to run a fever then it’s not that different from a really hard quality run. And we don’t normally need to turn around and do another workout, no matter how light, on top of a really hard session. We’ll actually recover faster by resting, especially considering we probably can't go easy enough to operate at recovery effort if we’re already burning super hot. Hopefully we’re not the gluttons for punishment that keep trying to push more volume at a high intensity when we’ve hit the point of a workout where we’re not getting the target stimulus. And this is no different. Tough is for stupid, right?

Even after we’re feeling better, we still need to let our metabolism recover from the extended effort of fighting off the illness. The longer and harder we had to fight, the longer it’s going to take to fully recover. It’s pretty similar to recovering from a race. A quick little 5k only requires a day or two before we can get back to training. But a hard marathon, ultra, or Ironman? You better believe you’re going to some time before you’re ready to crush a long run or a hard interval workout. My general rule of thumb is to keep it under 30 minutes of super easy effort for 2-3 days after you start feeling normal. Even if we’re going super easy, our heart rate is still going to spike a bit just like it would on a recovery day after a long/hard effort.

Heart rate data can be really useful if we check it on a regular basis. Our heart rate tells us how hard we’re working during a workout, and gives us a reasonable measurement of when we’re recovered. Because being sick is similar to a long workout, it can tell us when we’re recovered from that as well. While we can check our heart rate at any given time of the day, it’s our resting heart rate that gives us the best data in terms of how recovered we are. If we check our heart rate first thing in the morning when we wake up, or at least at the same time every morning, we’ll be able to establish a baseline for what is our own individual “normal”. If we’re 5-10 beats per minute above that, then we’re not ready for a workout. If we should be recovered by a particular day and our heart rate is elevated, it’s a pretty good indication that something is going on. Either we didn’t recover right (accidentally pushed too hard on a recovery day, didn’t get enough sleep, etc.) or we may be coming down with a bug. Either way, we’re in need of an actual recovery day and not a workout. Get some extra sleep. Get some good-for-you-food in. Do a recovery workout. Recover.

Recovery is when we get better. It may sound backwards, but consider that the only reason to do the workout is to allow us to have a recovery period (you know, when we actually get more fit). So the more recovery periods we successfully complete, the more fitness gains we see. The key point here is that the recovery periods have to be completed. If we’re not actually getting fully recovered, we’re not actually going to be getting as fit as we can be. So pay attention to your heart rate. If it’s elevated, don’t try to push too hard or get extra miles in. It doesn’t matter if it’s elevated from a hard workout or being sick. Recover. Then crush the next workout so you can have another awesome recovery.

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