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Recovering From Illness While Training

Last updated 2011-02-27 - Send Feedback
Related: heart rate, training

Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.

When training rigorously (placing strenuous demands on the body day after day), the risk of illness rises significantly, especially in the hours after a hard workout, where the body’s defenses are weakened. If you have children, and they’re bringing home viruses from school, you’re especially at risk, as I know all too well.

Illness is very frustrating when on a serious training schedule, but failure to heed the warning signs just means further loss of training time, often with a far greater loss of training time than if workouts had been reduced appropriately.

Training while ill also means sub-optimal workouts, sub-optimal recovery, and in this way can be worse than doing nothing at all (resting).

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Training while ill

For mild illness, cut workout intensity to pure aerobic— no hard efforts, and cut the workout duration by half or two-thirds. Done right, this might actually speed up recovery by encouraging blood flow. Overdone, it’s a problem. If in doubt, skip a day or days of training.

When you’re really sick, training is absolutely foolish, and you’ll often pay a high price for it, in the form of greater severity, or a nagging problem that drags on for weeks or longer.

Illness warning signs — example

As a brief example consistent with other similar observations I’ve made over the years, here are the training data of heart rate and power for two workouts I performed while almost recovered from a sinus/chest virus. On Day 1, I felt good, but I still had a sporadic dry cough deep in my chest:

Day 1: 226 watts @ 128 bpm
Day 2: 222 watts @ 138 bpm
(both workouts identical in duration and route and conditions)

A power meter offers an unambiguous metric to which heart rate can be referenced, which can show a red flag in relative effort. I felt rested and I was definitely fully hydrated on Day 2, but observe the heart rate running 10 beats higher at a slightly lower effort. That’s a warning sign!

Day 1 was a 90 minute workout, about as strong as I can do early in the season.

Day 2 was not only lower wattage, but 10 beats higher on the heart rate. That suggest either incomplete recovery or dehydration, or impending illness.

Day 3 slammed me: I was unable to complete a workout. I had very little energy, could not produce much power, and just plain felt tired.

Day 4 brought impaired airway function as an infection re-asserted itself in my lungs, along with a cough and a massive drop in my energy level, making even a short walk feel strenuous. A drippy noise, sneezing and a pre-pneumonia feel were no fun at all.

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Training smarter

The right course here would have been to resume training on Day 1 with a low intensity workout of perhaps half the duration (45 minutes instead of 90).

Then repeating that on Day 2 and watching for any drop in performance. Most likely, the infection would not have had the opportunity to re-assert itself because I would not have weakened my system.

Mistake 1 — I knew that I wasn’t over my cough on Day 1, but I had rested for several days, so I did a hard workout (at night and in the cold). At the end of the workout, the cough reappeared and that was a Clue.

Mistake 2 — Day 2 felt harder than Day 1, but I didn’t yet feel weak. But I coughed more after the workout. At this point, I should have been paying attention to the cough, and the unusually high heart rate.

The result of my error in judgment were that Days 3/4/5/6/7/8 were all culled from my training schedule— a big penalty for not resuming training properly.

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