Training With ... Illness

Illness isn’t forever. By prioritising recovery, you will return faster than if you push yourself too hard too soon.
Ashleigh Flanagan
December 3, 2021

Many of us mistakenly believe that we would all get the same results if we all trained the same. The diet and fitness industries thrive off this narrative. It simply isn’t true. We all respond differently based on many factors, including our age, gender, heritage, health, medical conditions, nutrition, recovery, training history, training expectations, socioeconomic status/determinants of health, stressors etc. In fact, how you respond to training will vary from session to session. The more your training is tailored to meet your needs and supports your goals, the more you will get out of it.  

For most of my clients, I encourage fostering an intuitive training style, meaning I want them to be mindful and flexible with their training. I want clients to feel empowered to listen to their bodies to make informed changes to get their best results. Clients struggle with this because:

  1. They have learned to stop listening to their bodies
  2. They believe more is always better
  3. They don’t trust themselves to train if they allow themselves any freedom
  4. They don’t know any better than grinding out sets and reps 

This next series, Training with ‘…’, will discuss considerations and general strategies for modifying training in situations where doing things differently will allow you to get more out of your training. Although this isn’t exactly intuitive training, I hope this series will provide a little insight into why modifying training based on how you feel is beneficial and highlight some common reasons why your results aren’t the same as the person next to you... despite your training being the same.

Training With … Illness

Obviously, ‘illness’ is a broad term that covers the common cold to life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia and sepsis. However, without going too deep into semantics, I use the term ‘illness’ to connote the possibility of recovery, in contrast to the fixed (though often fluctuating) symptoms of chronic health conditions. Of course, many people experience both acute and chronic symptoms simultaneously. 

To Train or not to Train

At times, training while you are sick is helpful. Exercise can improve your immune systems ability to fight infection by encouraging homeostasis and getting rid of bi-products of the immune response. In addition, gentle movement can reduce symptoms such as pain, lightheadedness and nausea. Sometimes just maintaining your routine is beneficial and improves your general outlook when you are feeling awful. 

At other times, training while you are sick is dangerous. Key symptoms you shouldn’t ignore are;

- Fever

Fever is part of your immune response to fight infection. It is a sign that your body is working really hard. Besides diverting your body’s resources from healing, exercise will increase your core temperature. With temperature regulation compromised in an already vulnerable state, a body can very quickly become overheated. This can be fatal. It is never worth training with a fever. Your body needs rest at this time. The normal body temperature of an adult is around 37 deg. Even an increase in 2 degs requires urgent medical attention.

- Racing Heart

Heart rate can increase for many reasons, including excitement, but if you are sick and your heartbeat is weak and erratic, it can be a sign that your body is working hard to fight infection. It’s worth checking your pulse rate before you decide to train. If this number is high for you, especially if you are also experiencing symptoms such as dizziness or palpitations (feeling heart beating in your chest), you shouldn’t be training. 

- High Blood Pressure

It’s normal for blood pressure to increase both when you exercise and when your body fights infection to meet increased oxygen and nutrient demands. High blood pressure is known as a silent killer because often there are no signs before a serious complication such as stroke, heart failure or kidney disease. It’s essential to check your blood pressure regularly. Don’t train if you think your blood pressure may be high; get it checked.

When Rest is Best

While high blood pressure, racing heart and fever are the big symptoms that should exclude training, it’s important to ask yourself:

Why you want to train?  
What you think you will get out of training? 

Light exercise is probably a good idea if your symptoms are mild and you are looking for symptom relief. However, training intensely when you are sick can delay your recovery and exacerbate your symptoms. You won’t be able to train as well as usual, won’t get the same benefits, and are at increased risk of injury. In addition, training intensely when you are sick may increase the length of time before you return to good quality training.

When you are sick, you dont always think clearly and rationally. If, before you were sick, you were happy enough to skip a workout because you were feeling tired or spending time with your family, but, when sick, feel that you can’t possibly miss training, then your thinking is probably distorted in its efforts to heal. This is a sign you need to rest.

Remember feeling sick with an illness isn’t forever. By prioritising your recovery, you will return faster than if you push yourself too hard too soon.

Exercising When Ill

If you do feel up to training when sick;

  1. Ensure that you are well hydrated
  2. Keep things low intensity
  3. Monitor your vitals
  4. Regularly check-in and notice how you are feeling
  5. Train outside, if practical (Reduce the risk of spreading infection, fresh air, improved sleep cycle and vitamin D)
  6. Prioritise things you enjoy
  7. Leave a little in the tank and stop before you need to

Next, in this series of Training with..., we will consider training with chronic health conditions.

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