Do you identify a little too closely with the Cough-A-Cabana from the Mucinex commercials? Do you blow through tissues like nobody's business? Has everyone in the office been waylaid by the latest bug? Sniffling, sneezing, and nose-blowing is all the rage this time of year. Cold-and-flu season is upon us.
Illnesses, injuries, and setbacks are par for the course for many endurance athletes. As winter drags on and our training ramps up, our immune systems often become overburdened and susceptible to viruses. And how we adapt to being sick will determine how—and how much—our training is impacted.
As Barney Fife would say, we need to nip it in the bud. Just because you are physically able to run doesn’t mean you should. A great rule of thumb is to stick to the “neck rule”: if your symptoms are above the neck (runny nose, congestion, mild sore throat, etc.), an easy run shouldn't hurt. It may even help by opening up the sinuses and clearing the junk. However, if you feel nauseated, dizzy, or worse as you go, then stop running. Call it a day. If your symptoms are below the neck (vomiting, sweating, swollen glands, chills, etc.), take the day off. Period. Running at that point will only make a body that is already tired (and fighting a losing battle with a virus) become even more fatigued. These symptoms are the body's way of telling us we have to rest.
Runners hate to take time off. Each day we don't run feels like a step in the wrong direction. But taking off several days (or even a week) for an illness will not hurt your aerobic fitness. Trying to continue training while sick will equate will. Not only will your training be suboptimal and therefore ineffective, but you’ll also find yourself on the shelf for a longer than if you had simply rested in the first place.
Once you feel ready to start running again, take one more day of rest. Sure, you feel better than you did before, but chances are you are not back to normal. An extra day off will keep you from jumping back too soon and then suffering the consequences: a relapse.
After that extra day off—your insurance day, if you will—run only half the distance you would have run had you not been sick, and run those miles easy. Your body is still tired from fighting whatever took you down. There’s no need to push it and end up sidelined with something else.
What should you do about the workouts you missed while you were on the shelf? Let them go, that’s what. They are in the past, and you aren’t Marty McFly. You can't hop in a DeLorean, fly back in time, and re-do training. Your training, like time, continues, even if you are sick. You can’t make up missed workouts or mileage. Squeezing workouts closer together or adding mileage here or there is a recipe for an overtraining disaster. The stress-and-adapt process is a delicate one; you can’t speed it up. You can, however, slow it down.
Dealing with an illness is never fun. And when it costs you training time, you feel doubly bad. Use these suggestions the next time you have to take a few days off, and you’ll be back training in no time.
Tim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team. Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors. Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.