Getting sick or ill sucks......especially when your training is going well and on a roll. It can seem that all the hard work and effort you've put in over the months is being undone every time you sneeze or blow your nose!! First of all - a cold will not undo all the hard work you've put in over the months.
Before discussing a return to training after illness, let's consider a few simple suggestions for staying healthy (as they're always worth reiterating!):
Get enough sleep.
Reduce life stress.
Eat nutritious meals.
Ensure adequate caloric intake.
Wash your hands regularly.
Avoid sharing water bottles.
Drink enough fluids.
When Should I Stop Training?
To decide if you should stop training, think about “above the neck/below the neck.” If your symptoms are above the neck or in your head (and I don’t mean in your imagination!) such as a sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, or headache, then it’s typically fine to train but with reduced intensity. Consider staying out of the water and avoid cold, wet rides. If the symptoms are below the neck, such as lung coughing, muscle aches, and fever, then shut it down. DO NOT TRAIN!! Remember that pushing your body while you have a cold or fever is incubating can amplify the ill effects.
Some athletes prefer to not train when they have a cold, preferring instead to rest and allow the body to recover as much as possible - this is my personal preference. Also, the older we get, then the advice would be to rest completely!
Plan Your Comeback After Illness
When considering whether my athletes’ return to training, I typically like them to be symptom-free for 24-48 hours, depending on the severity of illness. Initial training after that should be easy, aerobic, and short in duration. Think of the first two to three days as opening up the body to get it moving…like warming up an engine.
This 'testing' period not only ensures you are truly over the illness, but it also prevents injury. If you still feel the major symptoms, increasing the intensity out of the gate can set you back further. And if you’ve missed four to five days of training, your muscles may be rested, so a hard full gas effort on day one can create a lot of soreness, risking injury, illness and setting training back even longer.
After the easy test days, if you are still feeling pretty good and you want to get back into your preplanned training routine, temper the planned interval sessions by taking them down a training zone while making the recovery portion slightly more active i.e. take it slightly easier - don't push too hard and expect things to comeback overnight
For example, if you planned to run 3 x 1-mile intervals with jog recovery at 175bpm heart rate, do 3 x 4 minutes fartlek running at 165 heart rate with walking recovery. Include a longer warm up. This way you are accomplishing the general theme of the session without falling off your training progression, but not pushing yourself back over the abyss into illness. If in doubt, always take it easy
What About Missed Workouts?
If you have missed two to five days of training, don’t panic! Your fitness has not significantly changed.
If you are getting close to race season, you may look at rescheduling some of the key sessions that were missed. This is where it’s helpful you sit with your coach and tinker with your upcoming two weeks of training.
If you have missed six to 14 days of training, you may have to look at your overall progression and take a step back within the training progression (mesocycle). Hit rewind for one to two weeks prior to the onset of the illness (the longer you are out, the longer you hit rewind). Replicate the general framework of training you did prior to getting sick before progressing to the next planned step of your training schedule.........keep in contact with your coach who will help you through this period. It may be frustrating, but you must think longer term - your fitness WILL return!
If you have a big race coming up, that can be a tougher call. Assuming you don’t have flu, fever, or chronic coughing or bronchitis, you could consider a very short tempo “tester” effort the day before the race, such as 5-10 minutes of tempo running in Zone 3, to see if your body is ready. Race pacing strategy should be more conservative as well. Think of a building effort. And note that your risk of getting sick after the event is quite high. Personally, in this situation it may mean a DNS (Did Not Start).......this is better option than racing in my opinion - it's not worth the risk for your long term health and well being, after all it's difficult to turn off our 'racing brain' and we end up going too hard during the race. You should always consult your doctor before considering racing.
I must emphasise - the advice only applies to a cold.......you know, runny nose, headache etc......as mentioned before - "check up from the neck up." I repeat - if you have a fever or flu type symptoms, or aren't sure - Seek professional medical advice - DON'T TRAIN!!!! DON'T RACE!!!!
While getting sick is never fun, you can take pride in being as professional as possible in returning to action without causing further setbacks. Follow these basic guidelines to minimise risk and reduce loss of fitness; don't beat yourself up is you have missed training or have a DNS - there are always more sessions to do when you're up and running as it were.........and there are always more races.