When You’re Feeling Low… Guidelines for Training While You’re Sick

While cyclists tend to think that their cycling makes them the fittest and healthiest people on Earth, they do still occasionally get sick or injured. Regular exercise does boost the immune system and make one more resistant to illness generally, but, hard training to the point of fatigue actually impairs the immune system, making one more susceptible to illness for about eight hours after each hard session. Being strong and fit decreases the incidence of every-day injuries, but crashes happen and high-volume training can cause overuse injuries. Riders can avoid some illnesses by careful hand washing, getting flu shots and avoiding sick people. They can avoid injuries to some extent by paying attention to bike fit and riding carefully. Sooner or later, though, they come down with something or get hurt. How a rider deals with an illness or injury determines how long they will be suffering and how they will perform for a long time afterwards.

The worst mistake an ill or injured athlete can make is to try to do too much too soon. Training through an illness or injury is a good way to make it last longer. Hard training when the body is under germ-attack already lets the germs proliferate. This can lead to illnesses that last months or years instead of days or weeks. Athletes have lost entire seasons or even careers by training hard or racing while sick. Hard training while sick does not automatically lead to lost months, but months are lost often enough that it’s better not to take the chance. Similarly training on a sore knee, a numb hand or some other particular injuries can prevent them from healing and convert what should have been a simple recovery into months of rehab. Riding injured often causes riders to compensate by riding in an awkward position, inducing additional injuries and necessitating additional recovery time.

A cyclist who has been training consistently for several months, is proud of sticking to a schedule and is focused on the next racing season may have a hard time switching gears when sick or injured, but switch gears he or she must. Whether injured or not, the daily question for the successful cyclist is, “what can I do today to improve my performance?” Normally the answer is something like, “train or recover as appropriate.” When one is sick or injured, the answer changes. One can’t train effectively when sick or significantly injured, so the best thing for long-term performance is a quick recovery and return to normal training. That may mean taking it easy or even skipping some training.

How Sick Are You?

One doesn’t want to take a day off every time a nose drips, especially in the cold months of winter when most noses drip at least a bit. What constitutes being sick enough to need easy days or time off? There are six sure signs of being sick enough to need to take a day off training: 1) any fever or chills, 2) achy muscles not caused by working out, 3) fatigue or run-down feeling disproportionate to recent workouts or missed sleep, 4) wet chest cough or cough with colored phlegm, 5) diarrhea or 6) vomiting. If one has any of these symptoms, a day or more off is in order. If symptoms are milder or less clear, a recovery day is still a good choice. A recovery day is a short ride of about one quarter the length of the usual longer training ride at or below 70% of maximum heart rate, or a light lifting session.  An occasional recovery day won’t hurt training progress even if one is healthy, but training hard when one is a little bit sick can make one sicker.

Once one has decided that one is sick enough to adjust the training plan, what to do next depends on how the illness progresses.

Here are a few rules to help with the decision making whether one gets sick in racing season or in the “off” season.

1)    No matter what was on the training plan, keep taking days off so long as there are symptoms of serious illness.

2)    Regular training doesn’t start until one is 100% healthy and sure of it. If the symptoms are mild or one is mostly recovered from illness, recovery days continue until the day AFTER the first really good day. That is, if one has been even mildly sick, do a recovery day on the first day with no symptoms and save the serious training for the second and later days of good health. If the illness is never bad enough to keep the rider off the bike, he or she can return to normal training the day after he or she is fully healthy, which is also the extra recovery day.

3)    If the illness keeps the rider off the bike just a day or two, he or she can return to normal training when healthy, with one adjustment: Races and hard or very long training sessions should be delayed until after the first 4 post-illness days. If the illness keeps the rider off the bike for four to fourteen days, he or she should come back with a recovery day and then five more days of gradually longer aerobic base rides, starting from the length of the recovery ride and adding a bit of time each day to reach regular ride lengths on the sixth day. If the illness had the rider off the bike more than two weeks, the rider has had an involuntary rest period. What to do next in that case will be a compromise between starting base over and getting back on the original training plan.

4)    After an illness, even a mild one, the lactate threshold power and race performance are often down substantially for 2-3 weeks. The rider should not be surprised or depressed by this. Normal strength and power will return a few weeks after an illness if the rider does not overdo the post-illness training.

5)    Be tough but don’t be an idiot: If an illness seems serious or if one has any of the six signs for more than a few days, it’s time to call the doctor.

These rules add up a to a very conservative approach to dealing with illness. I’ve had  good success getting riders back to full speed and full strength following these rules, even winning a medal at Nationals less than a month after a serious, off-bike illness. I’ve also seen several riders get into serious trouble following more aggressive returns to training or racing.

Dealing with Injuries

The injured cyclist has two conflicting goals: 1) return to training as quickly as possible and 2) heal the injury so it doesn’t interfere with training and racing later. The best way to balance these goals depends on the injury. One can ride through the majority of injuries so long as appropriate precautions are taken. For instance, there’s no reason not to ride with road rash so long as the injury is appropriately treated with bandages and antibiotic. With the doctor’s permission, it is often possible to train on an indoor trainer even when outdoor riding is not advised, such as when healing a broken wrist or collarbone. With overuse injuries, it is sometimes but not always possible to train without being stupid. If the overuse injury came from riding in a bad position, then easy rides are actually opportunities to check the new position. For instance, a too low saddle or twisted cleat can cause frontal knee pain. Even if the knee is still a bit sore, once the saddle is raised a few mm or the cleat is rotated to allow the foot to sit in its neutral position (the position it would take if hanging freely with no cleat), one should go for an easy ride to see if the adjustment has corrected the problem.

There are injuries that absolutely should not be ridden on. They include: any injury for which the doctor orders time off, any injury that causes sharp pain when riding, any injury that feels worse rather than better as a ride progresses, and any injury that feels worse after a ride than before.

Many athletes forced onto the trainer by an injury, have come back stronger than they’ve ever been before. Indoor trainers, combined with a source of cool, moving air, make for very efficient training. There’s no coasting, no waiting for buddies to catch up, and only very rarely a flat tire. If the doctor orders time off, the athlete should ask for specifics: How long? What activities are allowed and what are not? Is trainer okay? The rider who is really committed to being the best possible bike racer will relish the opportunity to train even while injured and will be stronger for it. If one is forced to take time off due to a more serious injury, one can follow the same rules for returning to training that were listed above for dealing with illnesses.

Changing Goals

If through bad luck or bad judgment a rider ends up missing several weeks of training time, the original goals towards which the rider was working may become unrealistic. The rider who insists on pursuing the original goals anyway, racing before he or she is really fit for instance, is setting up a season of disappointment. The rider who is willing to refocus on new goals has a better chance of success.

Keep the Eyes on the Prize

Getting sick or injured sucks. Sitting at home when one’s buddies are enjoying hammering each other into submission can be almost physically painful. Extended time off the bike leads to de-training and delays race readiness. The temptation to train through an illness or injury in order not to lose time can be strong, but the punishments for returning too quickly can be harsh. Broken bones that don’t heal end up needing surgery, colds turn into chronic fatigue, and sore knees become so sore that riding is impossible. Committed and smart but overly enthusiastic riders can be their own worst enemies during an illness or injury. A coach can be very helpful at such a time. As an objective observer the coach can help the rider to make a realistic judgment about the severity of an illness or injury, potentially saving a season or career. The rider who makes the decision to take the time to heal may be race ready a few weeks later than originally planned, but at least he or she gets to have a racing season. With careful attention to hygiene and careful riding, illnesses and injuries severe enough to impact training can be kept rare, but when one hits, dealing intelligently with the setback will reduce it’s impact and keep it short.

Scott Saifer, MS and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching routinely help their clients keep moving forward when illness, injury or busy work schedules interfere. Adjusting training plans is as important as making them in the first place. To inquire about working with Scott or one of the other Wenzel Coaches, please call 503-233-4346 or visit www.WenzelCoaching.com.