Training When Sick: The Impact on Health and Performance

When you’re in the midst of a productive gym routine or training plan, falling sick can be incredibly frustrating.

It hinders your progress and puts a halt to the momentum you’ve been building. While we’ve all heard that training when sick is not recommended, many of us still struggle to follow this advice.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of resting when ill and the potential consequences of pushing through workouts. As we delve into this topic, we’ll also provide practical guidelines on when to train and when to take a break.

READ MORE | How To Boost Your Immunity

Weighing the risks

As winter arrives, it becomes more likely for us to catch unwanted illnesses. It’s understandable that individuals might want to ignore their sickness, especially when they’ve invested significant time and money into training for an important event.

For instance, physique athletes preparing for a competition can experience a major setback in their conditioning progress by missing just 10 days of training.

However, it’s crucial to recognise that the setbacks caused by training, preparation, or performance interruptions are far less severe than the potential health consequences of stubbornly pushing through illness.

Training when you are sick has negative implications for your health, and exercising when your body is already under strain can have long-term effects.

READ MORE | Go On The Gym Germ Offensive To Avoid Nasty Bugs This Winter

Consider immunosuppression

Training hard weakens the immune system, which is responsible for combating infections. Intense exercise increases the production of cortisol and other stress hormones that decrease the activity of your natural ‘killer cells’—T cells—which fight the microorganisms causing infections. Blood lymphocyte levels drop, reducing your resistance to infections.

If you’re getting sick, your body may be fighting an infection while also dealing with the stress hormones and waste products produced during exercise. Therefore, if you’re already sick, the inevitable outcome is evident.

READ MORE | Can I (Really) Exercise When I’m Sick?

Know when to pull back

So, when should you train or compete, and when should you put the brakes on? While there isn’t a definitive black-and-white answer, various sources, including health and sport websites, refer to the “neck check” rule.

If your symptoms are above the neck, you can proceed with caution. Mild head colds, sore throats, and sneezing may not hinder your training significantly.

However, if your symptoms are below the neck, it’s time to pause and allow your body to recover. Chest infections, coughs, and body aches indicate that training should be temporarily halted.

Certain strains of the flu virus can lead to myocarditis, inflammation of the heart wall, and are responsible for sudden cardiac death in 5-22% of athletes under 35 years of age.”

Although it’s not guaranteed that a viral infection accompanied by training will inevitably lead to the aforementioned outcomes, it is reason enough to exercise caution rather than risking disaster.

What’s your POA?

So, what should you do if you’re sick and concerned about losing valuable training time? Here are some suggestions:

Prioritise your health

If you haven’t been screened for underlying heart conditions, it’s crucial to undergo a stress test and an exercise electrocardiogram (ECG) under supervised conditions. Identifying any latent heart conditions will significantly impact your decision-making regarding training, supplement usage, and whether you should exercise while sick.

Monitor your heart rate

Train with a heart-rate monitor and become familiar with your resting heart rate during each phase of your training. As you approach your taper, pay attention to your heart rate upon waking each morning. An elevated resting heart rate (7-10 beats per minute higher than your normal) can indicate the presence of an infection.

Consider exercise volume, intensity, and progression

Implement a well-researched and periodized training program that allows for gradual increases in training load and intensity. Take into account factors such as exercise and training history, allergies, weather conditions during pre-season and in-season training, susceptibility to injury, and stress levels. Keeping a training logbook will help you track training volume, fatigue levels, food intake, and overall well-being.

Always remember that training while sick is not advisable, even if it’s just a mild cold. Monitor your heart rate, assess fatigue levels, and observe how your body reacts to exercise. Listen to your body and prioritise safety over taking unnecessary risks.

Ultimately, resting and allowing your body to recover when sick is crucial for your overall health and long-term performance. While it may be disappointing to put your training on hold temporarily, it’s a necessary step to prevent further setbacks and potential health complications.

By understanding the importance of rest, following the recommended guidelines, and making informed decisions, you can strike a balance between achieving your fitness goals and safeguarding your health and well-being.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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