Training While Sick: Do I Stay or Do I Go?

September 12, 2018
Chris Reed

Everyone can agree, no one wants to be sick. But as usual, every now and again a bug comes around and puts us in bed. When we are sick, our immune system is on high alert and fighting for us. It does everything we need to get better while we are busy on the couch watching Jeopardy (although I prefer Family Feud). The big problem here is that life does not stop when we aren’t feeling great. Our to-do lists get bigger, our work piles up, and, at some point, we need to get back out there.

If you are like me, training is pretty important. I don’t like to miss a single session, and when sickness gets in the way, I try to push through it. Over the years, I have found that this approach is not the best way in order to hit your long-term goals. Let’s take a deeper dive on what we should and, more importantly, should not do.

The Two Sides of “Sick”

“Sick” can take on a whole lot of different meanings. Some define sick with symptoms of a headache, runny nose, or congestion. Others won’t say they are sick until they have general malaise, fever, and body aches. With these symptoms, it is pretty obvious that you should not be training. If symptoms are strictly above the neck – meaning headache, runny nose and congestion – it is okay to do low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Think of activities like walking on the treadmill, coasting on the bike, and weight training of low weight, high rep ranges just to get your body moving. The main focus is to not induce any more damage in the body. Unfortunately, this is not the time to go for your squat record. The well-being of others is also something to keep in mind – going to a public place while sick is an easy way to spread the infection.

Be Cautious

When your symptoms are below the neck, that is when more strict caution is warranted. Symptoms like lethargy, malaise, diarrhea, fever, or body aches mean you should not train. When you are fighting an infection, virus, or bacteria, inducing muscle damage will only make it worse. If infected with any type of pathogen, our body’s only job should be to fight for us. Inducing skeletal muscle damage creates a new problem for the body to address, and if you are already sick, you can’t allocate the necessary resources to fight off the invader. Any resource going towards rebuilding skeletal muscle is a resource that should be contributing to getting you back to 100% health. This is why even when symptoms are not that severe, training should be kept light.

Hand Washing How-To

Hand washing is one sure-fire way to stop the spread of infection. And yet, most people don’t wash their hands enough or effectively. Follow these steps each time you wash your hands to make sure you are covered.

  • Wet your hands first with warm or cold water.
  • Lather hand or bar soap all over the hands and up to the mid forearm.
  • Take care to get the backs of the hands, under your nails, and between each finger.
  • Scrub scrub scrub for at least 20 seconds. That’s 20 Mississippis, no cheating.
  • Rinse your hands and forearms with clean water.
  • Dry with a clean towel.
Boost Your Immunity

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is shown to help the immune system but only when performed healthy. A short bout of high-intensity exercise has no effect on the immune system. A long bout of aerobic exercise (think marathon) suppresses the immune system. The outcome is that your body is more prone to infection. If you know you are approaching a marathon race date, stock up on vitamins and minerals well beforehand. For anyone not embarking on an endurance event, if you want to boost your immunity with movement, think moderate-intensity training consistently throughout the year. Here are some of the best immune boosting vitamins and minerals to supplement:

  • Vitamins B, C, D, & E
  • Folic acid, selenium, iron and zinc
You Know Your Body

When it comes down to it, let your symptoms be the guide. If you feel terrible, stay home, as exercise will probably make it worse. Trying to power through while sick can keep you down for longer. It is better to stay home and come back at 100% rather than power through and increase the time spent not at your best. Remember, keep others in mind, and consistency is key! Staying home one training day is better than not being able to give your best for weeks just because you trained when it wasn’t appropriate.

The following two tabs change content below.

Chris Reed

Chris is a native of Chicago, IL. Growing up he played every sport he could convince his parents to sign him up for, which shaped his current holistic approach to performance and training. After high school, Chris received a Bachelors in Kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Following that, Chris moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to pursue certification and a Masters in Athletic Training at the University of Arkansas. While there, Chris received the Athletic Training Student of the Year Award after his second year in the program. Immediately after graduating, he spent a year as an Intern Athletic Trainer with the Chicago Bears. Over his short time as a Certified Athletic Trainer and Athletic Training Student, he spent time in the high school circuit, Big 10, SEC, and NFL across multiple sports including football, baseball, track and field, and lacrosse. He uses his knowledge of injury rehabilitation and sport performance to guide realistic and thoughtful choices while progressing or regressing athletes. In his free time, he enjoys hiking, 12-inch softball, golf, and reading.