Training While Sick: What’s the Verdict?

My cousin asked me about this a little over a month ago when she was down with some really nasty cold/flu stuff. 

"Should I run?"

I told her to stop and get better.  Or, if she did want to get a few miles in just for sanity’s sake, to go someplace warm (a gym) and do them on a treadmill.  Better not to expose yourself to the freezing rain if you’re already battling a bug.

So Saturday when I got smacked with fevers, headache, a bad stomach, and swollen glands, I took my own advice.  I stopped.  I skipped Sunday’s TT and laid on a sunny picnic table talking to Ben Johnson instead.  It was nice to see the team and be out in good weather, but it sucked to miss the race.

Of course, I figured that in exchange for my wise decision, my body would reward me by repairing itself in one or two days.  "Better to be out for one or two days," I reasoned, "Than to make things worse and then have to deal with it for weeks."

The only problem is that my body is not upholding its end of the bargain. 

I should have gotten it in writing.

I should count my blessings.  The fevers are done, my stomach is back in working order, and my appetite is good and healthy.  It could be a lot worse.  But yesterday when I commuted to work on the Iro, I was still extremely disappointed to notice that my energy levels are absolutely tanked, and my lungs are still filled with all kinds of crap.

It is hard to ride a bike with diminished lung power, man.

I had a good ride planned for today, but I don’t feel even remotely up to it. In my misery, I did a little research to see what other people had to say about training through illness.

SportsVelo notes:

If your symptoms are only above your shoulders (for example, a head cold and maybe a light sore throat) with no fever or aches then an easy 30 minute to 1 hour of zone 1 of aerobic exercise (spin, run, swim) is OK, but only if you are feeling up to it! If you’re not motivated, don’t work out, and just do some stretching and light core work and follow guideline #1.
If you’re sick in your chest, have a fever, and/or aches, then DO NOT EXERCISE. Remember, the sooner you get well, the sooner you can resume training. Once you’re starting to feel better (no longer sick below the neck, no aches or fever) wait another 48 hours to resume your regular training routine. If you’re feeling motivated during the 48 hours, see guideline #2. Be sure to see your doctor if you are really sick! And if you are sick longer than a week, we need to change your training schedule, so check in with your coach.

I’ve heard the above-the-chest vs. below-the-chest argument before. It makes sense although it’s not exactly what I wanted to read.  Being off the bike for just a few days has already felt like an eternity. Dramatic?  Sure, but what’s new around here.  I just want to ride.

Jonathan, an Ironman competitor, notes that he should have stopped and taken a few days off when he became sick earlier this year in January.

Dr. Stephen D. Chung, PhD over at Pez Cycling (I heart Pez!!) has this to contribute:

Despite what you may think, it’s not the end of the world to take a few days off or completely easy. Unless you’re right in the middle of the Tour or your absolute key races, it is almost always better to play it safe and take a few days off rather than risk a much worse infection.

If your significant other isn’t killing themselves with laughing at you, you might even convince them to give you some TLC for a day or two. Once you get back on the bike, resist the temptation to immediately hammer out hard intervals to make up for “lost” time. That’s because it can take your body up to a week to fully recover from even a minor cold, and it was the over-exertion that helped to get you sick in the first place! Remember, it’s always better to be under-trained and healthy than over-trained but sick!

I like the last sentence best of all and I think it really nails down an important point.  I know many cyclists who, like me, have a veritable fit if they can’t get on the bike for a few days in a row.  It’s as if we live in this terrifying world of self-doubt, in which we truly believe that a week off the bike will override every bit of training that we have ever done in our lives.

It’s as ridiculous as it sounds and yet I get sucked in.  Every. Single. Time.

At the bottom of all this is an important reminder about why we’re even doing this in the first place.  Sure, we want to push our limits and test our mettle. We want to be the very best that we can be. But at the core, we do it out of an inherent love of the bike and, more importantly, and inherent love of the self-knowledge that suffering on the bike gives us.

We suffer. But there is a point.  There is greater meaning.

As my good friend Greg Hartman pointed out to me at Sunday’s race, "Thank god that we don’t have to feed our families with these performances, right?"

Well spoken, Greg.

All this to say, I’ll still toss and turn at night counting up all the miles that I’ve missed. But perspective is a fanatic’s best friend, and at the end of the day I’ll take health over OBRA points any day.

Be well,

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  1. I bet this post hits home for a lot of people right now. It seems like everybody’s sick, and I’ve heard (from a doctor) that this is the worst year for the flu in quite a while.

    I just got over being sick. I took it fairly easy because of it. Actually, Ma Nature decided to hit us with an ice storm that canceled spinning and a swim, too, which gave me even more time to recover. The result? I’m back strong as ever. I didn’t lose a thing.

    It sucks going through it, but rest (in moderation) usually pays off.

  2. Trust. The. Base. Remember when you feel like getting back to it, you’re not starting from scratch. This will be a distant memory and when it is you’ll be glad for the rest you took.

  3. So long as I’m not having really bad stomach issues… I pretty much run and for me personally I almost always feel better.

  4. Yep, everyones sick right know it seems. I cracked a rib on the 9th then went and did a hard route up Mt. Hood the following weekend. I started to feel the flu coming on the night before the climb but went anyways. Man I was wasted after that for 3-4 days. Coughing and sneezing sure didn’t help with the rib.

  5. No worries Heidi,

    I second Mt Mann, trust the base you have built.
    I surprised myself on Sunday after all the lost time over the last month.
    See you at Banana Belt….with the clean booties!!
    Thanks again.

  6. Watch some sport movies and get some rest. :)

  7. blech. i had to take the bus to work today :(
    my body had zero energy this morning.
    don’t wanna push it man.
    gotta rest up!
    I’ll be back in the saddle tomorrow :)

  8. Much as it sucks it’s all true. In a past life, when I was a fanatic, I tried to work through my illness and wound up not being able to recover for a good month. I nearly put myself in the hospital trying to be healthy and fit.

    I’d give you some advice to feel better about your unwanted break but I know it won’t work. I’ll leave you with simply, get well soon.

  9. Yeah — this year has sucked for everyone. I feel like there’s still some left-over in my lungs from 4 weeks ago.

    The crazy thing is this year’s flu data is really uncommon. Normally cities go through a 6-7 week peak shaped curve, with the curve representing the severity of strains and volume of cases each week. This years curve stretched out to 13+ weeks (it’s still going, although in the decline), and the curve was dome shaped, with the height of the curve ~30% higher than average years (i.e. nastier virus, way more people got sick, and it stuck around twice as long).

    Good times. Get better dude. And don’t ask why I have flu symptom models and data.

  10. Here’s a follow up from my earlier comment. I took that easy week when I was sick, and this week was easily my best training week since August or September. Breakthroughs across the board.

    I also have a loaded question for you. I want to learn more about cycling. Where the hell should I start? I picked up a copy of Bicycling magazine and most of it was just “Look at all these $4000 bikes you can’t afford,” and very little about training and the like. Any thoughts?

  11. Just found your blog when doing some of my *own* research on training-while-sick (getting over a cold that tanked my 1st race of the season). Thanks for the great info – I’ll be adding your blog to my subscriptions.

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