Training and the Flu – What to do?

There’s a whole lot of talk about Coronavirus (COVID-19) right now, which is serious stuff, but the flu is a current issue in the US right now and it impacts lots of us.

As athletes, the thought of taking extended time off due to illness or injury is horrible. Fear of losing speed, power, fitness, not being ready for an upcoming race all loom over you and make you feel like you need to get back to training sooner than later.

But here’s the deal. Training Stress Score (TSS) is a metric in Training Peaks that helps measure the intensity and duration of workouts. It measures the physical stress on the body. But there are lots of other things that create stress in the body that TSS doesn’t indicate – work stress, spouse stress, kid stress, parent stress, illness stress, lack of sleep stress, poor nutrition/hydration stress…all of these take a toll on the body physically because they’re stressors. TSS doesn’t measure or account for any of those!

Whether you use Training Peaks or not is irrelevant. Understanding ALL of the stressors in your life and the impact on your physical state is the key here!

I had a coaching client text me to tell me he had a fever and wouldn’t get his workout done that day and probably not the next day. My initial response to him was this:

“Oh no! Hope it’s nothing too bad like the flu or something. Take it easy, rest, hydrate. Wait until you’ve been fever free for 48 hours before you try an easy workout.”

The next day he confirmed it was the flu. This was a Sunday.

His response was “I’m out of commission until at least Thursday.”

Me: “Ugh! Bummer. Take care of yourself. Be at least 85% normal before you try to workout easy…regardless of when that is.”

Now, this client has a marathon coming up 2 weeks after he developed the fever. So why would I tell him ignore time frames and wait until he feels like he’s back to almost normal before he workouts again? As a coach, I want my athletes to perform well. Sometimes that means I tell them to take time off to achieve that! Going into a race healthy, but slightly undertrained is better than trained and sick.

Pushing through illness is a major stressor on your body. It’s already not functioning at normal capacity. Trying to get it to perform athletically at sub-par function is asking for bad results. You won’t get the benefits from training and in fact, you’ll only delay your return to full performance by trying to start back training too soon. Add onto that the fact that having the flu means you’ve missed work and things may not have been done around the house and you’ve got to get caught up in all of that too, means you’re going to be physically and mentally stressed over that as well in the early days of recovery. Training too soon will likely exceed your body’s ability to recover from all of that at once. So take some time off from training. You’ll actually bounce back quicker.

If you jump back into training too soon, you may delay your recovery from a week to 10 days off of training to dragging it out for several weeks to months to get back to full strength. Sweating it out is not a good idea. Your body is already sweating with a fever. Don’t stress it out more!

When you get sick with a major illness like the flu, wait until you’re almost back to feeling normal energy-wise with your daily routine (home, work and family obligations) before adding training back into the mix. When you do those first few workouts, keep them short and easy and see how you feel the rest of the day and the next day. If you don’t see a decline in energy or an increase in other symptoms, then gradually increase your training over the next week back to normal. But if you notice that decline, it’s your body’s way of telling you it’s not ready to jump back into training yet.

So make sure to respect the flu and how much toll it takes on your body. Let it recover before you jump back into training!

Dr. Jeanne Williams, PT, DPT, OCS
We help endurance athletes (from beginners to pros) train and cross the finish line faster and injury-free!

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