To Train or Not to Train? When Sick, What is the Answer?

I LOVE working out. You will be hard pressed to find someone who enjoys pumping iron more than I do. Taking a rest day for me is like pulling teeth, I avoid it at all costs. It’s a struggle for me to keep myself out of the gym, even knowing that if I do it means I will recover more effectively and get bigger and stronger much more quickly. I’ve worked hard to try and find balance in my training, both reducing the length of my training sessions and increasing the number of rest days per week and month, but it’s still difficult to take a day off. Unfortunately, there are times where rest days aren’t an option, they’re mandatory, like in the case of severe injuries or extreme sickness.

With the change in season and fall weather quickly coming upon us, it’s important to discuss illness and when to train or when to rest. I’ve had several clients cancel sessions this week as a result of being sick and I myself have been under the weather. In fact, I took the past 2 days IN A ROW off from the gym, which is something that I never do. With illness running rampant this time of year, it’s important to understand when it’s good to sweat it out, and when exercise will actually hinder your recovery or even make you feel worse.

Workouts, like lifting weights or running, cause a stress response in the body which is great when you’re healthy and can adapt, but can be a hindrance when your body is already stressed and fighting to recover, like in the case of certain illnesses. It’s important to understand which types of illness will actually benefit from some exercise and which types deserve full on rest and recovery.

Upper respiratory track infections (URTI’s), things like coughs, common colds and illnesses with allergy-like symptoms, are different from more serious illnesses like strep throat, the flu, or other viral infections that deserve serious rest and attention. When dealing with something like a cough or cold, exercise can be beneficial to the recovery process, as long as it’s not overly strenuous. The idea is to exercise at a low intensity, relative to your fitness level, to cause a positive immunity response and speed up the recovery process. Walking, light cycling, or in the case of someone who is well acclimated to weight training, light weight lifting can be acceptable forms of exercise to speed up recovery and improve the immune system. A couple of rules for the first 2-3 days of feeling sick:

  1. Keep exercise to less than 45 minutes
  2. Don’t allow your heart rate to get elevated much more than a basic warm-up for a workout
  3. Avoid excessive sweating, breathing and exertion, below a 3 RPE (this is different for everyone as fitness levels and bodily reactions are different)

It’s important to treat these exercise sessions during the early stages of feeling sick like active recovery and not a workout. You should feel more energized upon finishing the session, rather than drained or worse than when you started. Play it safe and err on the side of caution when necessary, pulling back during a workout rather than pushing harder.

When dealing with more serious illnesses, it’s important to focus solely on rest, making sure to get adequate amounts of food, and water. Exercise will only exacerbate the symptoms of the illness and likely make it last longer, so don’t push it if you’re feeling any of the symptoms listed below:

  • Fever
  • Muscle/Joint Pain (Body aches)
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing/sore throat that has gotten worse

Each person is different and each case will be different, so I often tell people to go by how they feel. It’s important when going by “how you feel” to be honest with your analysis of your symptoms and how you’re feeling. If you’re anything like me, you will try to convince yourself in every way fathomable that you’re, “not feeling that bad” or a “workout will make you feel better”. This sort of rationalization is self-sabotaging and you’ll hate yourself for it when you’re sick for longer and with more extreme symptoms. So be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and understand that a day or two of rest to recover from being sick is much better than trying to push it and having that illness last longer or get worse.

For a great infographic on the subject with more information, details and insight check out Precision Nutrition’s website that has all sorts of information regarding nutrition and fitness.

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