Kick Your Sick: Hanging Tough Through Cold and Flu Season

Guess what? I’m almost not sick anymore! Rad. It’s only been… what – six weeks now? No problem.

I’d feel bad for myself if I didn’t know that half of the rest of the cyclocross community was also sick. And racing through sickness.

Sal reported this morning that I am coughing less and less during the night so I celebrated with a hot, steamy mug of delicious Courier Coffee Roasters coffee. (Holy shit, that stuff is out of this world delicious.)

About a week ago the Oregonian ran a column I wrote about being sick. I think their headline said something else, but I titled it “Lung Butter”. Scroll to the bottom of the post to skip the fluff and check out a few general guidelines for dealing with illness when your cycling brain just wants to force your legs to make pedaling motions (and to contribute your own secret remedies/tactics)

Lung Butter (It’s what’s for breakfast)

Lung butter.

It’s about as appetizing as it sounds. As a normal human being it’s the kind of stuff that keeps you up late at night hacking. As a cyclist, the soft vibration of respiratory liquid is a veritable death knell.  The sound of your fitness fading. The inevitable reversal of months of hard-earned progress.

Changing seasons bring a fresh rotation of viruses, bugs, and flus. Traditionally, I wait until the early winter months to acquire something dramatic but this year I decided to dive in right away with a standard-run-of-the-mill early Fall flu.

When the lung butter is this good, why wait?

I took my usual approach to the threat of affliction: outright denial. I rode with a friend in the debt of a chilly morning, raced in the weekday series, and worked late on a deadline. “I am invincible”, I repeated internally.

Despite the fact that this particular tactic has been proven ineffectual (repeatedly), I employed it with absolute confidence. Mind over matter. The headache would surely subside, the general achiness would fade. That scratchy throat? That will go away.

It didn’t, of course. And I woke up a few mornings later with a three-alarm fever, a chest full of mucus, and a head that felt like I’d been mashing it against a street post. Denial gave way to a wave of self-pity followed by fits of sobbing.

So much for invincibility – time to hit the medicine cabinet.

My boyfriend Sal displayed his usual compassion (“You’re weak! How could you let yourself get sick!”) and gentle care-giving tactics (“Don’t come near me.”) and I wallowed in my misery. Meanwhile, the bike sat idle. And the first major race of my cyclocross season approached.

Then came my Michael Jordan moment. Remember when he played with the flu in the 1997 NBA finals against the Jazz? I do. He threw up before the game, had a 104-degree fever, still managed to play 44 minutes and then collapsed in exhaustion after making the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. I watched that game live. He was superhuman.

And I’m going to let a little case of the sniffles keep me out of the local B-league bike races?  No way!

There’s only about three things wrong with this logic. 1. I am not Michael Jordan. 2. I am not getting paid mutli-millions (or anything, for that matter) 3. This is not the NBA playoffs. (It’s a few loops around the Alpenrose Dairy.)

I went to the race, but I didn’t ride. I watched. And you know what? It sucked. In fact, I’ll risk melodrama by admitting that it was the tiniest bit agonizing.

But that night, as I lay in bed hacking up the last of the lung butter I knew that – for once – I’d done the right thing. Next to me, Sal tossed and turned. He woke up the following morning with The Affliction and promptly stopped speaking to me.

I returned his previous care-giving tactic of exaggerated avoidance and headed out into my day to enjoy a feeling of rapidly returning wellness and smug superiority.

Tips for Cycling Through the Cold and Flu Season

“When in doubt, throw it out.”
That’s the old adage. If you question your fitness or fatigue levels, even just a little bit, throw out your workout or ride for the day. It’s better to err on the side of caution when dealing with sickness – by dialing it back, you won’t lose as much fitness as you think and you might prevent the evolution of a more serious illness that could have you sidelined for weeks or months.

Head and Shoulders
One quick guideline seems to be universally agreed upon when it comes to athletes and sickness. If symptoms are above the shoulder only (a head cold and maybe a light sore throat) it is ok to do an easy workout if you’re feeling up to it. If you have achiness, fever or your lungs are affected, keep your hands off that bike for a few days.

Make recovery a priority
My coach, Russell Cree of Upper Echelon Fitness, once told me, “Cycling success is a three-legged stool of physical strength, mental capacity, and health.” That sounds simple, but many cyclists don’t treat recovery with the same priority that they do training (making for a very wobbly stool). Rest days are just as important, if not more so, than hard interval days and when you’re sick that becomes truer than ever. Make the effort to get quality recovery.

Ready, Set, Wait
Once you feel like you’re ready to get back at it again, wait another day (a full 24 hours). It can take your body up to a week to recover even just from the common cold – and over-exertion was probably what got you sick in the first place. It’s always better to be under-trained and healthy than over-trained and sick. When you do get back on the bike, resist the urge to go hard right out of the gate.

Secret Weapons

I’m no medical doctor, but I have gotten pretty good at taking care of myself when the sickies come knocking. Here are two of my favorite products for increasing comfort when the lung butter is on a rampage.

Throat Coat Tea by Traditional Medicinals contains Licorice Root and Slippery Elm – it’s slightly viscous which means it truly does “coat your throat” offering pretty amazing relief from scratchiness and soreness.

Olbas Oil contains extractions of essential oil from six medicinal herbs including eucalyptus, peppermint and clove (it’s strong!). Breathing it in enhances breathing passages – try adding 20 drops to a bowl of hot water, place a towel over the head and breathe vapors in deeply for 5 to 10 minutes. (I’ll also often inhale this stuff from a small piece of tissue before a race – it feels incredible!)

Acupuncture If I hear one more thing about how good acupuncture is for the early stages of colds and flus, I’m going to scream. That said, enough smart and healthy people have told me to go get punctured for me to believe that they’re onto something. I just got health insurance that covers acupuncture treatment so I plan to finally go find out what all the hype is about.

Herb/mineral treatments If you are self-aware (I am extremely NOT self aware) and catch an illness creeping up on you, there are a few great solutions that may smash it down dead in its tracks before it has a chance to round-house kick you in the head.

Yinchiao: A smart Chinese herbalist/accupressure practitioner that I frequent recommends this. I managed to use it effectively twice this year to stop bad stuff before it started.

Gan Mao Ling: Same Smart-Lady recommends this in case you don’t catch your sickness early enough to use Yinchao. When things get full bore, I eat the Gan Mao Ling like candy.

Wellness Formula: A different smart lady (traditional western nurse with hippy-natural-medicine leanings) recommends this stuff. She takes it in small doses all winter long and manages to stave off The Crud. I am currently preparing to employ this tactic.

What about you? Have secret weapons to share? By all means, leave a comment!


PS: Don’t forget to add yourself to the contact list so I can letcha know what is going to happen with this here blog in the very near future. (Things are changing.)

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  1. Merino Wool!

  2. Amen! An anonymous emailer (shy poster?) also just shared this link to hearty cold weather gear: Glacier Glove

  3. Move somewhere warmer. :)

  4. Embrocation and cross training! Remember to set yourself up to succeed! If you are not a morning person don’t set up your training to do a ride before you head to work! Design everything around who you are! Also remember to take off and enjoy your respective holidays during this time of year.


  5. Lozy! Curious to hear your thoughts on what to do/how to treat if you do happen to actually get sick?

  6. Yes, yes, on the wool for riding in the cold. Heavyweight wool, midweight wool, lightweight wool base layers, … tops and bottoms and feet … and on colder rides, toe warmers (like Grabbers). As the Swedes say, there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.

    When I start feeling like my body is fighting something off I up the vitamin C (Emergen-C, or something like that). It usually does the trick.

  7. Dude. Your contact list link is wonky. Like 404 Error wonky.

    As far as illness goes, therapeutic yoga involves extended period in inversions (headstands, handstands, shoulderstands) before illness takes hold. Winter time should be inversion emphasis time. There is a great article here ( at YJ outlining a simple immune boosting sequence. The one caution I would add is if you have a bacterial sinus infection, then inversions are contraindicated. For any viral infection, by all means, invert if you can manage it. It will help drain sluggish lymph and clear the lungs.

    As a full-time teacher of yoga though, I’d like to add when you have the crud, please do yoga at home. Don’t come to class and infect everyone else!

  8. Link fixed! (I think). Thanks, Umariffic.
    Also, great advice about the inversions. And yoga in general. I need more yoga in my life asap.

  9. Fisherman’s Friends.

    • YES!!! FIsherman’s Friends… I almost forgot. An all-time favorite for me. I lived on them during my senior year cross-country season in high school. My Norwegian coach would hand me one of the start line, pat me on the shoulder and tell me to suck it up and go fast.

  10. Be proactive. Once of prevention / pound of cure blah blah blah. Don’t sacrifice sleep for too many days in a row. (I’m looking DIRECTLY at you Swift!)

    Sinus rinse. I use it proactively in the morning and before bed. As soon as I start to feel the hint of congestion or pressure, I double up on it. Lung butter gets is start as nose gunk!

    Wash your hands frequently, have hand sanitizer at your desk for after you cough or sneeze. Clean your work area daily when you are fighting off a cold.

    Chuck your toothbrush as soon as you get over one.

  11. and apparently I can’t spell ounce. :p

  12. single malt scotch!

  13. Good stuff, Matt! Toothbrush is one I hadn’t thought of. Kenji has also pushed the sinus rinse… might have to try that one!
    For the record, I may neglect many parts of my personal wellness, but I never-ever-ever get less than 8 hours of sleep! I LOVE sleeping!

  14. Bostongarden

    Grandma’s chicken soup!!!

  15. I have posted this before on the CX magazine. This is the plan that I have been following for several years. I have not been down with the cold or flu since.

  16. Well if it is in the head I keep training but maybe not at hard. If it is in the chest, then I take time off. I usually train through being sick, I am not sure if I should or not but I do, unless it is in the chest.

    I agree with the toothbrush. I had mono a few years ago and my doc told me to get rid of my toothbrush. So now every time I get sick I replace it once I start to feel better.

  17. I’ve found the mud at Barton Park to have medicinal properties. Other than that, I just tell myself I’m not sick. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m not!

  18. Last winter, I had four big colds *and* walking pneumonia, for a total of three straight months of sickness. The 12 mo’s. before that, I was “under the weather” for three days. Changes in life stressors, anxiety, and mood make a huge difference. This year, I’m trying out the strict “listen to my body” approach. No training through colds — in fact no training if I even feel sluggish. It’s winter — plenty of time to gear up in Jan.-Feb. Til then: Maintenance training.

  19. Daniel Rearden

    Nice article and I’ll let Erbeck know he’s a cover model again.

  20. Erbeck (pictured) does not prescribe to these newfangled approaches. He uses one item / product to fend off all potential invaders, silk. With delicate precision AME weaves the scarf between his neck and the merino of choice. His technique leaved the appropriate amount of room allowing maximum ventilation while retaining the much needed thermals in order to keep the machine grinding at peak performance…

    Speaking of AME, I should phone to see if he has kicked his second major cold of the season.

    ahhh daycare.


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