How to adjust your training when you get sick
By Sean Burke
am reminded of this topic after receiving emails from many of my athletes who have been under the weather in recent weeks, as well as being sick enough to be bed- and couch-ridden myself for about 36 hours just a few days ago. Besides the normal winter colds, there is an especially virulent flu affecting more people than usual and many of my riders are having to tone down their programs. As a coach, sometimes my job is simply to be the voice of reason. Cyclists can be obsessive about their training. They want to get in every interval, every minute, every kilojoule, every kilometer. But sometimes the smart thing to do is just take the day (or a couple of days!) off. This can be especially tough when you feel like your fitness is coming along well or you are close to a big event. Sometimes it’s ok to train right through it, but frequently the best plan of action is to take a few extra days off, or extended periods of easy training.
When to train right through sickness: As a general rule, you can train right through it when training doesn’t make it worse and you don’t have a fever An example would be a minor head cold, with the characteristic congestion, headache, nasal pressure, and clear mucous. Getting on your bike can raise your body temperature and actually help clear out some of that congestion by loosening up the mucous and getting it out of there. Just be careful not to hit your riding buddies with those snot rockets. It will pass in a matter of time and you may take some medications to treat the symptoms (See my earlier posts on USADA,. Your body just has to beat that sickness on its own and antibiotics won’t do anything to improve the situation. Keep in mind that everything changes if you have a fever, the infection moves to your lungs, or if you have colored mucous, a sign of a secondary bacterial infection.
When to adjust your training: Any time you have a fever, you should take the day off. A fever is part of your body’s way of fighting off invaders and you need to marshal your reserves to fight this thing. You may have an important workout or ride coming up, but riding when you have a fever is only going put you in a hole and make it worse. You’ll wind up taking longer to get over your sickness and you’ll miss more days of training than you otherwise would. If you have a case of a head cold that turns into a secondary bacterial infection as described above, you definitely need to see a doctor, who will most likely prescribe antibiotics to take out the bacteria. I know many riders who are reluctant to take antibiotics, but if this upper respiratory tract (URT) infection works its way down into the lungs, you could develop pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. This is much more difficult to get rid of, and could result in an extended period off the bike. It’s much better to nip it in the bud early and get back to doing what you love. Pneumonia can develop from a viral URT infection as well as a bacterial one, so you should also get of your bike and see a physician if you experience any wheezing or labored breathing.
The situations above are all cold- and flu-like symptoms that are associated with the winter months. Other situations that warrant time of the bike are obviously situations like vomiting or diarrhea and gastrointestinal pain/distress. If you experience any of the above symptoms along with severe back pain you should get to the doctor right away as the back pain could be a sign of severe dehydration and possible kidney failure.
Whenever you take some time off due to illness, be sure to ease back into your training. You don’t want to challenge your already weakened immune system and have a relapse. Some of the gastrointestinal issues can leave you dehydrated and your carbohydrate stores depleted, so you may need an extra day or two to refuel and restore your body. Most of this stuff is common sense, but cyclist can be hard on themselves and the drive to train can sometimes overpower that common sense. As a coach, sometimes my job is to tell riders that its ok to take the day off. Typically, my athletes already know that a day off is the right decision, but the same killer instinct that compels them to race bikes, also makes them want to power through it rather than take a day off. They just need someone to remind them that, sometimes, not training is better than training.
Disclaimer: I’m not a physician, so the above isn’t medical advice and I can’t diagnose your disease. Use your noggin and see your doctor if you are ever unsure about what to do.