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Managing Illness While Training

Managing Illness While Training

It is inevitable.

As much as we don’t want illness to interrupt our training and race plans, it is going to happen. Adults average 2-4 colds per year. In the U.S., most colds occur during the fall and winter. Beginning in late August or early September, the rate of colds increases slowly for a few weeks and remains high until March or April, when it declines.

Moderate exercise has been shown to reduce the number of days of illness, but “training” generally has the opposite effect. In fact, heavy training strain combined with other life stress will most likely increase your illness frequency.

On the upside, the occasional cold doesn’t actually derail your season. Fitness doesn’t disappear in a week and strategic breaks from training are already a normal part of the overall plan. Short of being sick immediately preceding or during an important competition, it is certain that the occasional illness will not “knock you off track”. Usually, a “sick week” can simply become an unscheduled “rest week” and future planned rest can be adjusted accordingly.

On the other hand, if you are frequently getting sick or your “normal” illness timeline has changed you should look for chronic problems. It is possible your training load is too high, you are getting too little rest and/or you have some underlying health issues that are limiting your body’s ability to handle the training load. A comprehensive physical checkup is in order (including blood test) and a serious look at your overall training plan.

It is a good strategy to have a plan for when you get sick and take steps to decrease your chances of getting ill in the first place.

Know when to stop training

A simple guide to whether or not you should exercise is the so-called ‘neck test’. If your symptoms are from the neck up, it should be alright to do low to moderate intensity exercise. Cut back on the amount you do and listen to your body – if you feel exhausted after you’ve exercised, skip a day and reassess on a day-to-day basis.

Always remember that high intensity and long duration exercise can interfere with immune function. Further, workouts may not be very productive with  respiratory congestion or irritation, so complete rest may be the best option.

If your symptoms are primarily below the neck (a deep chest cough or a fever), take a break from exercise until your fever subsides and you feel much better.

Although, how you feel should be your ultimate guide, here’s a a few helpful tips to follow:

Day 1

  • Drink plenty fluids, keep from getting wet/cold, minimize life stress
  • Only low intensity exercise with symptoms like sore throat, coughing, runny nose, congested nose
  • No exercise at all when experiencing muscle/joint pain, headache, fever, malaise, diarrhea, vomiting

Day 2

  • If body temperature is above 100 F, or you experience increased coughing, diarrhea, vomiting, do not exercise
  • If you don’t have a fever or malaise and no there is no worsening of “above the neck” symptoms: light exercise (Zone 1) for 30-45 minutes, by yourself, indoors if winter

Day 3

  • If fever or other symptoms persist, consult physician
  • If no fever or worsening of symptoms, light-moderate exercise (45-60 minutes) allowed

Day 4

  • If you still have no symptom relief it is best to skip all exercise, continue to rest, and have an office visit with a physician
  • If 1st day of improved symptoms and no fever, light-easy exercise

Ease back into training

Use the same number “sick days” off to return and gradually step up to normal training intensity and volume. Monitor tolerance to increasing exercise intensity and take additional days off if poor tolerance.


While you can avoid getting sick sometimes, you can take steps to limit your risks. Stay healthier by taking the following steps to minimize your down time due to illness.

Wash hands

Your fingertips are home to some serious bacteria, and research suggests you touch your face — mouth, eyes, nose — about 16 times an hour. To keep those germs at bay, wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, the CDC says. Hand sanitizer doesn’t get rid of germs as well as a good handwashing does, but formulas with at least 60% alcohol can kill some of them until you can get to a sink.

Minimize contact

Avoid crowded areas, shaking hands and minimize contact with people outside your normal social circle — especially visibly sick people. Young children get sick more often and can be another source of transmission.

Avoid sharing bottles, cups, cutlery, etc.


Lack of adequate sleep can have a big impact on your susceptibility to infection. Researchers have found that people who get less than 6hrs of sleep per night are 4x more likely to catch a cold than those who get 7 hrs of sleep per night.

Bottom Line

It’s not the end of the world if you get sick and stressing about it definitely won’t make it any better. The best approach is to just take it in stride and let your immune system do what it is built to do–get you back on your feet as soon as possible!