There’s almost nothing triathletes loathe more than being sidelined with an illness. The idea of lying in bed or slumbering on the couch while our friends are out training is sheer torture! We panic and visualize our hard earned fitness slipping away. In our short-sighted thinking we either push through only delaying the illness and missing more workouts, or we take a step back, think long term, view it as a life giving us a rest day(s), and get well. So how do you know when and how to resume training after an illness?
A few words to the wise
Despite our tendency to disagree, the body doesn’t start to de-train until day five of inactivity. Most illnesses caught and treated at onset are well on their way out in five days time.
Although we prioritize the weekly tempo run, long ride with brick or masters swim workout; we must realize that there is no single day or week of training that is the differentiating factor in our fitness gains or race performance. Instead, fitness comes from layering months and years of consistent training together. One week will not make the difference no matter how stellar or the lack there it may be.
Just like your household budget has wiggle room for unforeseen expenses, a smart coach builds contingency weeks into your training plan to allow for missed sessions due to life mishaps, travel, work, and yep, you guessed it, illnesses!
When to rest and when to push through?
If the symptoms are from the neckline up (common cold), you can keep training. Think sniffles and sneezing. But if you are unsure, err on the side of caution and take a day off just to be sure.
If the symptoms are below the neckline (body ache, fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea) you MUST rest. Usually, with a virus, 48-72 hours of full rest will have you back feeling like yourself again. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Such as, if you get hit with the flu be conservative and allow for more recovery time. The flu virus is nothing to mess with, can be life threatening, and depresses the immune system more aggressively than a common virus. Be sure to see a physician and follow their guidelines.
When an illness has taken you out:
1- Be smart. When we are sick, the body is compromised and cannot adapt to the training stress. Ignoring these warning signs will only extend the length of the illness and may negatively affect the rest of your season. Listen to your body. You’ll know when you are back to your usual energetic self.
2- Prioritize sleep. Resting will allow your body to fight the virus (or for bacterial infection – allow the antibiotic to work) without adding additional stress by continuing to meet all of life’s demands.
3- Stay well hydrated. Appetite is typically depressed during an illness, but the body must stay well hydrated. Best options are non-caffeinated beverages, liquids with electrolytes (esp. if vomiting or diarrhea), and drinks containing sugar for energy. Examples, sprite, ginger ale, sports drink, water, caffeine free tea.
4- Reduce stress as much as possible. Give yourself permission to lay low, cancel scheduled appointments and meetings, and delegate responsibilities, if you can.
Easing back into training after an illness
Once you feel that energy levels have returned to normal and you are feeling good in your normal daily activities, let’s test the waters. But, hold on – don’t go full steam ahead with the “catch up” mindset. There’s no such thing as catching up. What’s gone is gone; let’s move forward, wisely, with training after an illness.
Day 1 – Approach this training session with an easy -just getting the blood moving again – mindset. Stay aerobic (Zone 1) and don’t bite off more than you can handle. Consider and easy spin on the trainer for 60-75 min while watching a movie, or an easy, technical focused swim. Hold off on the run until day two simply because it raises heart rate the most and takes more out of your body than a swim or bike session.
Day 2 – If all went well on day 1, then you can come into this session with an endurance mindset (Zone 2 effort). We are still in an aerobic zone but can go longer if feeling good. Options: an easy run for 45-60 min, another bike but longer this time, or a swim. Keep it to one workout – until you are sure all systems are a go.
Day 3 – If the first two days back have been smooth sailing, then you may resume your scheduled training load.
Optimizing the immune system
Ideally, in a perfect world, we would prevent catching a nasty virus at all costs. Above washing hands, using hand wipes, coughing into your arm (not your hand), and staying home when sick, it’s nearly impossible to protect yourself 100%. We can improve our odds by loading up on certain foods that will boost our immune function either by staying well or getting well faster.
- To maintain energy balance and support training adaptations, consume the appropriate balance of carbs, protein, and fat for your output.
- Consume carbs before, during and after long, hard or two a day training sessions to reduce the suppressive effect of endurance training on the immune system.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods with polyphenols and vitamins A, C and E to combat oxidative stress: oranges, cantaloupe, papaya, blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, dark chocolate, sweet potatoes, broccoli, carrots, spinach, bell pepper, asparagus, and beets.
- Choose lean protein-rich foods high in iron, and zinc: chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, low-fat dairy products, eggs, legumes and soy-based foods.
- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help combat chronic inflammation: salmon, tuna, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.
- Vitamin D to promote immune defense: fatty fish, fortified foods (milk, orange juice, tofu, soy beverages, some cereals) and egg yolks. Sun exposure helps too.
- To enhance gastrointestinal and immune health, include foods high in insoluble and soluble fiber along with prebiotic and probiotics: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium-containing milk, kefir, and yogurt.
Every situation is different, so don’t be afraid to ask a professional for advice on getting back to training after an illness.