It’s one thing to work out when the weather’s got you down. We can brave the elements. Mother nature won’t beat us! We can bundle up or slather on sunblock. Drink more water and wear rain jackets. But what about when our own bodies turn against us?
Working out when a winter cold, flu, or other ailment has you up against the ropes might be one of the more miserable experiences an athlete can endure on the day-to-day. What can you possibly do about it? While sometimes there's not much at all you can do beyond seeing a doctor and taking care of yourself, there are strategies you can employ to ensure that you are up and back on your feet as soon as possible.
How to Prevent Illness from Sidetracking Your Workout Routine
When you feel it coming on…
So you have a case of the sniffles. Maybe you have some fatigue, or you’ve been having headaches and malaise. You still want to work out...but should you? You know that if you don’t, you’re just going to feel lethargic and ill-at-ease.
Reduce your intensity.
The rule of thumb for illness and exercise is this: when you’re feeling sick, reduce your usual exercise intensity by half. Whatever you usually lift, lift half. Usually run? Walk instead. Reduce your time, too. You likely won’t want to, but you have to be mindful of exacerbating the problem through fatigue and too much body stress.
When is sick too sick?
Maybe you’re starting to really feel bad. You’re wondering whether or not you should hit the gym at all, but you’re torn. Follow the “above-the-neck” rule. What are your symptoms? If they’re above the neck, like a runny nose, sneezing, or a dry cough, you should be fine to exercise at a reduced capacity. Below the neck, with symptoms like muscle aches, stomach pain, or chest congestion?
Sit this one out.
The biggest determining factor for “how sick is too sick,” though, is a fever. If you’re running a fever at all, do not exercise. Exercise raises your body temperature and when you’re running a fever, that’s the absolute last thing you need.
When you’re already sick...
So you’re in the throes of a full-blown illness. You don’t want to miss out on your work out for fear of getting flabby and losing some of that hard work, but you feel terrible! What’s an athlete to do?
An athlete is to stay home.
One, it’s likely that you're contagious, at least for the first few days. Don’t risk infecting the rest of your gym buddies. Two, any workout you could get in your condition isn’t going to be worthwhile. In fact, it will probably do you more harm than good and set your health back. Three, your body needs ample rest to recover. Let your immune system recharge with plenty of sleep, ample fluids, and medicine as needed.
Your priority should be healing your body from what ails it. Anything else can come later.
The rules for the road to recovery.
When should you return to your regular exercise regime when you’ve recovered from an illness? Remember, for most illnesses, though your worst symptoms may have subsided, others can linger for days, even weeks after the worst has passed. It’s important that you listen to your body and what it needs.
That last thing you need to do is rush into an intensive workout routine before your body is ready for it.
Generally speaking, when you’re ready to return to the gym, start with a less intensive routine (about 75% normal capacity) and slowly return to normal over the week as you find yourself able. Depending on your diagnosis, it may take longer to get back in action, particularly if you were dealing with an upper respiratory infection that caused any sort of chest congestion or a cough.
Even if you aren’t sick anymore, remember to continue to get plenty of rest and fluids as you recover. Be gentle and listen to your body, particularly if you find yourself short of breath or fatigued.
Ultimately, the best way for any athlete to prevent an illness from knocking them out of their exercise game is to take care of themselves and to compromise when they should. Prioritize self-care and take a break when you need to. Allow yourself room to rest and recover. The more you do, the sooner you can get back to doing what you love most.