Just when so many people thought that they were off to a great start to their 2013 training, they were derailed by illness. Maybe they even made it through the holidays without missing any workouts or gaining any wait, only to wake up sick one morning. This is always a tough time of year for colds, but this year's flu season has been particularly bad.
Athletes often carry a higher risk of getting sick. Studies have shown that regular low to moderate intensity exercise can improve the function of the immune system, but high intensity (>90% VO2 max) and high volume (>90 minutes/day) training can have the opposite effect. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you fall into the latter category.
So what do you do?
1. Get a flu shot. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine differs from year to year but this year it appears to be reducing the risk of infection by about 60%. Many employers offer flu shots for free and it is often available at pharmacies for a relatively low price.
2. Try to get a good night's sleep. Sleep is a huge factor in determining how effectively you recover after training. Do your best to get 8 hours a night. 9 is even better if it's possible (especially if your training volume/intensity is very high). I know that some people (in particular anyone with children) will laugh at this, but even if you can't increase your quantity of sleep, maybe you can increase the quality. Think about getting a better mattress or pillow, installing room darkening shades, having a cup of herbal tea before bed and investigating ways to avoid stress in the hour before bed.
3. Take antioxidant and glutamine supplements and . OK, before I talk about this I should mention that a lot of supplements are not proven to be effective. But that doesn't mean they don't work, and as long as they are safe and legal, I don't think that it does any harm to try it out and make up your own mind. Glutamine is an amino acid that helps support the immune system when stressed. A lot of recovery drink powders include glutamine already, but you can also buy it in powder form and add a teaspoon or so to your recovery smoothie. Antioxidants help prevent damage caused by free radicals (which endurance athletes often have a high degree of exposure to). There are many many types of antioxidants, the most well know being vitamin C and vitamin E. They are found in many foods, fruits and vegetables in particular. However, if you are like me, you don't eat enough vegetables and fruit, especially in the off-season, so you may want to consider taking a supplement. I take a supplement every day that is a mix of lot's of different antioxidants.
4. Take extra precautions when you have extra exposure. If you work in a hospital or a school your exposure is most certainly higher than average, but unless you quarantine yourself you will never completely eliminate your exposure. So take some extra precautions. Wash your hands regularly and keep some hand sanitizer handy. Take Emergen-C or Airborne when you are going out to a party or taking public transportation. No need to go overboard, just be smart.
5. Know yourself. Maybe this should even be #1 on the list but I put it last because it relates to the next section. It can take a long time and sometimes you have to learn this lesson the hard way but knowing what feels normal and what doesn't feel normal can go a really long way. Luckily, most athletes have a better than average self-awareness. If you wake up with a scratchy throat, it could be that you are on the verge of getting sick but it could also be low humidity or mild dehydration. If you start sneezing it could be the the first sign of a cold but it could also just be an allergic reaction or dust in the air. Missing a couple days of training to avoid getting sick is a no-brainer but no one wants to miss a couple days of training just because they had a couple sneezes either.
OK, so let's say you you wake up with a scratchy throat and it is something worse than just the dry air. Or maybe it is much more clear. Perhaps there is green mucus, sore muscles and fever involved. This time of the year, one out of every 3 text messages I get reads something like "Woke up feeling sick. What should I do for training?". My answer is often the same. Although some people will advise that you make a distinction between a head cold and a chest cold, I usually air on the conservative side here.
Day 1: Skip your planned workout. Do a 20 minute recovery spin on the rollers or trainer and see how you feel. This won't be enough to make things worse if you are definitely getting sick, but it should be enough to let you know which way it's gonna go. Often all you need is a day off from training, a good night's sleep and a packet of Emergen-C and you can avoid getting sick altogether. If you get done the 20 minute spin and you feel fine, you can probably proceed with your training plan as prescribed going forward. If you get done your ride and you don't feel 100% (or at least 85%), proceed to day 2.
Day 2: Same thing. Do another 20 minute recovery spin and see how you feel. If you completely took off the day before, same thing. Even if you woke up feeling fine, you should get back into your regular training plan without doing at least one day of easy 20 minute spins first. Too many people think that they are healthy and ready to get right back into it before they are. The 20 minute spin is like your password to enter. Get it right and re-enter the building. Get it wrong and you come back the next day and try again.
Day 3-Day ?: Same thing, but if you still are sick it is probably time to go to the doctor if you haven't already. Some over-the-counter or prescribed medications to fight the cold and it's symptoms may also be in order. If you have to go on antibiotics, it will affect your training for as long as you are taking them, although you should be able to get back to your training before you finish them. How you react to training with antibiotics differs based on the type of antibiotic, the dosage and the individual person. Most athletes say that they can get through most workouts but they don't feel "right". GI problems, light-headedness and elevated heart rates are common. My (non-medical) opinion on this is that a lot of it has to do with the fact that antibiotics kill the "good bacteria" as well as the bad stuff. As strange as it sounds, you may actually want to take a probiotic supplement or at least eat a little more yogurt while you are taking the antibiotics.
As long as you are sick, your first priority should be getting healthy. Rest up, take your medications, and be smart. Until you are at least 85% healthy, you shouldn't be doing much in the way of training. Even if you can complete your training, you should ask yourself how much you will really be able to benefit from it if you are sick. You probably won't lose as much fitness as you think you will, and even those 20 minute spins will help curb fitness losses and ease the transition back into your regular training plan. Sure, you may not have been improving your fitness as much as you would have been if you had been healthy the whole time but deal with it. This is the real world and setbacks happen. The most successful athletes aren't the ones that never have any setbacks, they are the ones that are the best at moving forward despite their setbacks.