When Less is More with Flexibility Training- Part 2- When you are sick

Hard work doesn’t always pay off. Learn when a less is more approach is best when it comes to flexibility training.
Ashleigh Flanagan
September 30, 2021

When Less is More with Flexibility Training- Part 2- When you are sick

There is a pervasive cultural narrative that if we work hard, good things will come to us (‘we get out, what we put in), and of course, this isn’t a universal truth. So much of our fortune is out of our control, and there are many times when less is more. This series will explore these times.

In the last blog in this series, we considered how times of threat and uncertainty increased our sensitivity to pain, affecting our flexibility training, and what we could do to increase our tolerance at these times.  If you missed it, read the blog here

Part 2- When you are sick

Just like when we are experiencing stress and uncertainty, being sick represents a threat to our health and safety. However, unlike external stressors, when illness hits, we are not best served by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) drive to fight, flight, freeze or flop as a way to protect ourselves. We need rest, sleep, adequate nutrition and time for our immune system to do its good work. We recover most quickly when our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is dominant. In fact, the results of the SNS drive, such as impaired digestion, disrupted sleep, and diminished immune function, reduce our ability to heal, recover and fight infections.

The last post in the series explained how SNS activation is linked to increased pain sensitivity to drive protective action. Pain is a strong motivator to act in nurturing ways. In the case of illness, increased pain sensitivity is strongly linked to the structure and function of our immune system.

Pain sensitivity and our immune system

Undoubtedly we have all experienced a cold or flu that has caused us to ache all over and forced us to reassess our plans and go to bed. We can experience what is knows as allodynia, where things that don’t usually elicit pain, such as lifting our head off a pillow, result in a pain experience. One reason for this is our nervous system, which is responsible for the modulation of stimulus inputs resulting in the output of a pain experience, is full of immune cells that upregulate sensory impulses when our immune system is activated. By motivating us to rest, increased pain sensitivity ensures that we are less likely to be exposed to further threats to our system, and we prioritise healing. Healing and fighting an illness takes a lot of energy.

Another interesting symptom of the link between our immune system and our experience of pain is hyperalgesia. This increased pain sensitivity can result from previous damage to nerves or changes to the neural pathways involved in the modulation of pain. We may notice this as pain in areas we have previously injured when we are feeling sick. For example, an old back injury may ache when we have the flu, even though there is no change to the state of our tissues. In the event of injury, our body will lay down more immune cells in the nerve tissue around the area to be more able to respond to threats to our already vulnerable system and drive us to act in ways that support recovery. When our tissues heal, we may still have extra immune cells around that injured area. This results in preferential sensitivity in areas of the previous injury when illness drives an immune response.

Flexibility training when you are sick

Flexibility training is often painful because we are loading our body in ways that are not usual and attempting to do things we have never done before. By their very essence, stretches represent a potential threat to our system. When we are well we are less sensitive to pain and will tolerate more stretching load. When we are sick, our tolerance will be less.

Depending on how unwell we are and how intense our training is, flexibility training when we are sick can impact the speed of our recovery. If we have a light cold, some gentle stretching and movement can be great and help us feel more comfortable. If we are really sick, for example, the flu, the stress on our already threatened system can result in SNS response leading to impaired healing and recovery. Healing takes a lot of energy. Our body will try to prioritise this energy for healing unless we threaten our system with intense exercise. Also, poor sleep and illness are two of the most significant risk factors predisposing injury in all athletes.

We cant rush how long healing takes. Getting back to intense flexibility training too soon can result in reduced performance, delayed recovery and injury. By being patient and taking care of ourselves when we are sick, we will be back to better quality training sooner.

Key tips for flexibility training when we are sick

-Keep it light. Prioritise gentle stretching and movement that feels good. Keep sessions short and enjoyable.

-Keep hydrated. Hydration is more important than ever when we are sick—dehydration when training is a real risk.

-Avoid flexibility training if you are really sick. If you are having trouble getting out of bed, staying awake, keeping food down ect. This is not the time for any exercise. Your body is already under a lot of stress, and it needs to prioritise healing. If you train flexibility in this state, you risk injury and becoming even sicker.

To learn more about stretching and injury risk : read the blog

Books an appointment with a Physio that knows about flexibility training: Book a Physio Appointment

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