Training and Racing with Illness by Coach Beth Ann Orton

It’s been a brutal cold and flu season, and I’m just getting over my own sickness and returning to training, so it seems a fitting time to discuss the dreaded topic of training with illness. There’s no way around it, we all get sick.  Training and other life stressors all draw from the same well of energy, and when the scales tip toward fatigue, sometimes we get sick. And of course, sometimes we just have bad luck and can’t prevent the winter yucks– colds, allergies, and other illness, happen to everyone!  Here are some tips for making the best of sick days.

1.     Sleep: Sleep is the ultimate recovery tool – there simply isn’t anything better. Give yourself a practical and restful sleep routine, and recognize how much sleep you need to perform at your best on and off the bike. Then try to sleep even more!

2.     Listen to your body: Recognize when you’re getting sick and shut down training ASAP. Any new body aches or upper respiratory symptoms should be a bold signal to give your body rest. You may still have to tend to daily obligations, but remove the physical stress of training as soon as you detect illness. If you can Netflix and chill, even better.

3.     Communicate with your coach: The sooner your coach knows you’re coming down with a bug, the sooner he or she can adjust your training load and help you forecast a return to riding. Plus, your coach can be very reassuring.

4.     Don’t panic: If your body gives in to illness, there’s a good chance you need to rest anyway.  If you’re an athlete of good fitness during mid or late season training, evidence assures us you won’t experience fitness losses for up to 10 days. If you’re in an early season build phase, you’re better off resting than you are digging a fitness hole that will take weeks or months to recover from. Either way, rest is always more beneficial than training through symptoms of illness.  

5.     It’s okay to continue with stretching and gentle body movement when you have a cold, but only if it helps you feel better. Aside from gentle activity, just try to make peace with missed workouts – you might even consider deleting them from your calendar so you don’t have to think about them!

 6.     When is it safe to return to training? As a general rule, never train during active illness (or active viral replication for you nerds out there). Signs of active illness include body aches, fever, sore throat, constantly runny nose, and productive cough. When these symptoms have subsided (typically 5-7 days for a “normal” upper respiratory virus), it’s probably okay to return to easy riding.

7.     Ease in: It’s best to resume training with recovery rides after being sick and build back to intensity at a rate that matches your prior fitness level and does not provoke new symptoms of illness. The longer you’ve been sick, the longer this process will take, but it’s better to be conservative than it is to jump in too quickly and regress. Training too much, too soon, can inhibit recovery and future performance.

8.     Talk to your coach (again!): There is no perfect answer for a return-to-intensity timeline after illness. A conservative approach will require as many days as you were ill to return to full training load, but sometimes you need more time. For instance, a prolonged illness of multiple weeks may require a brief return to base building prior to resuming intensity. This is a decision you can make with your coach based on the severity and duration of your symptoms and with respect to prior training load and target events. 

9.     Just let it happen: This is a personal, anecdotal note. I find that when I let myself relax and just “be” sick, I recuperate quickly, but when I fight an illness and sneak in rides, I’m prone to prolonged periods of illness. It’s okay to be sick! 

10. Finally, sometimes (but almost never!) you may choose to ride when you’re sick: When the stars align and rough luck strikes, you might be sick for a target event. Maybe you picked up a virus on the airplane germ tube, or maybe your kiddo had the flu, and now you do, too! Remember that racing through active illness can have prolonged, deleterious affects to not just your training, but to your overall health: Any decision to race while sick is a personal choice and one should carefully consider the pros and cons of proceeding with illness. If you decide to race through illness, remember to be patient and understand that recovery after your event may be prolonged – only you can make this decision!  

Everyone gets sick sometimes – reframe it as your immune system getting a tune up. The sooner you rest and recover, the sooner you’ll be able to return to riding.  The longer you train through wintertime colds, the greater your risk of fitness losses due to prolonged illness. Let yourself be sick! Chances are good you’ll be back on the bike without any major fitness losses. In the event you find yourself experiencing repetitive or prolonged fatigue and illness, please consider consulting a medical professional in order to address potential underlying sources of illness. And of course, always talk to your coach. Salud!

Anne Linton