Guidelines: Training While Sick (Guest Post by Vinny Johnson)

Spring always seems to bring on the sickness. More often than not, a lot of us will find ourselves sprawled out on the couch sick instead of outside training.  I asked QT2 Systems coach/professional triathlete Vinny Johnson, to give us some guidance on training protocols when you are under the weather. Take a look: 

How you deal with illness can make or break your training. Not just for that cycle/period, but ultimately the quality of the next cycle and season overall.  Through personal experience and working with other athletes, here are some guidelines to get back to 100% as soon as possible.

The first step is to understand how and why your body is reacting to the onset of illness.  If the illness is a head cold, training can resume as dictated (for the most part).  However, once an illness seems to spread outside of the head area, care must be taken to ensure that you get back to 100% as soon as possible. 

Once an illness starts to make its way below the neck line, you can actually cause an increase in the severity of symptoms by continuing to move forward with prescribed training.  What can start out as a "cold" can quickly progress into more severe symptoms by adding more stress to the body as it shifts energy into combating the virus.

Once an athlete suggests to me that they aren't feeling well, I will ask them if it is confined to the head/neck area.  If symptoms are showing up outside of this area I will prescribe an initial 24-48 hour "off" period from training.  During this time, nutrition/hydration and rest are the most important pieces of training that can be accomplished to ward off the spread of more severe symptoms.  Taking these few days completely off will only enhance the quickness of getting back to 100% health, and back to normal quality training.  The worst move would be to continue to add stress to the body, since it will allow the illness to linger longer than it would under normal circumstances.

After this initial break from training, we will then need to come to an agreement on how the athlete is feeling overall.  I use the following guidelines to gauge what type of training can be accomplished during this period. 

If the athlete feels 85% normal or worse, NO training is worth doing.  The athlete still needs to continue to rest and recover.  This is always a hard call, since we "feel" as athletes that because we aren't training as dictated by our cycle workouts, that we are taking a step back.  But there is 0 point, in continuing to swim/bike/run if we aren't at optimal health.  Moving forward at 85% or less will cause mediocre/poor workout performance.  Long term this has more of a negative impact in overall fitness.  The efforts to drive performance are fruitless, since the body is more concerned with fighting off the pathogen.

If an athlete is feeling about 85%, I will have them cover durations of workouts at a VERY low effort level.  Basically, recovery zones.  If an athlete is feeling about 85-90%, I will have them cover durations at a recovery/easy aerobic effort level.  If the athlete is feeling about 90-95%, they can cover efforts at their aerobic zones.  95-99%, they can work into aerobic threshold (tempo) type work.  Only if an athlete is at 100%, will I allow them to cover their best sustained effort levels.

Gauging your percent of health, is always a grey area.  So when in doubt, always go lower on your perceived level of feeling 100% healthy.  It is always to be safer than sorry. The percent, is more a gauge of energy levels and feelings of sickness, most of the time it is with respect to that achy feeling.  So the percent, is really a measure of how fueled you are, and is in a good indication of where energy is flowing in your body.  Is energy going to fight off illness or is it going into muscle for activity. Focus for an athlete, needs to be in 24 hour windows.  To often, we feel one day might negatively affect our race which may be months down the line.  Divert energy into the things directly in your control, and don't waste energy on things out of your control.  You are always in direct control of the things you are doing in 24 hour segments, so focus on that.  Never make a decision one day, negatively affect your tomorrow.  Always think of things you can do in 24 hours, that will make the next 24 hours better.  This is focusing on nutrition/hydration/sleep/fueling.  If you nail those 4 things, every day, swim/bike/run performance will always fall into place.

As athletes, we can't help but feel like we have to do everything in our training program.  We need that satisfaction mentally, and emotionally to check off that box of accomplishing a workout.  If you are under the weather, you HAVE to listen to your body and take the steps IT needs to get back to 100%, even if that means not working out.  You may not get the mental/emotional satisfaction of submitting that workout, but instead you will get a healthier you long term. In the end, that is the ultimate goal, to get to the start line at 100%. 

Time dealing with an illness, and not working out is often viewed as time off, or recovery.  So there is a need post-illness to "make up" the lost stress that wasn't covered.  This is also a bad move, since the body was by no means in "off/recovery" status while it was dealing with an illness.  Instead, it was put through the ringer, just like it would have been if it was exposed to training/racing efforts.  The nutritional deficit post illness is a huge one.  So if an athlete tries to make up work/stress post illness, they will over draft their stress budget and be open to the illness coming back or a new one setting in.  Illness is NOT recovery/nothing, so it should be treated as a stress just like workouts would be.

The quality of your season, and performance at your 'A' race will be dictated by how you deal with adversity getting in the way of your daily training.  If illness is an adversity that shows up within your season, be respectful of what the body needs to go through in order to get back to 100%.  Taking short time periods of no training, or adjusting intensity of training as you deal will illness will go a long way to improve the overall quality of your season. If a workout can't be accomplished at 100%, or near that, you really have to ask yourself "is this going to be worth it long term?"...."will what I do today, make be better tomorrow?"....if the answer is no, then don't do it.  Live to fight another day.  Checking off a box, in order to complete a workout, doesn't always make you a better athlete.

About the author - Vinny Johnson is a Professional Triathlete, high school teacher, and triathlon coach for  QT2 systems . He was also nominated by many different magazines for having the best beard in triathlon. 

About the author - Vinny Johnson is a Professional Triathlete, high school teacher, and triathlon coach for QT2 systems. He was also nominated by many different magazines for having the best beard in triathlon.