Coping With Illness During Aerobic Training

Generally, if you take a break and rest you'll get over the entire illness faster than if you try to suffer though it.

It stinks to get sick when you feel you are on track with your training for upcoming events. As much as we all try to stay healthy, it happens.

It may start with a scratchy throat or just feeling tired. Those of you that are "Type A" personalities definitely don't need my "toughen up cupcake" blog. Instead you need to take a break.

If your symptoms are above the neck (sinus drainage, watery eyes, scratchy throat) you can go ahead and exercise—but only if you really feel like it and if you keep it completely aerobic. If you are on the edge of an illness, typically an anaerobic workout will push you over the edge into a real illness.

If your symptoms are below the neck (coughing, body aches) or involve a bacterial infection (sinus, bronchitis, walking pneumonia) then it is best to take a few days off and just rest. Generally, if you take a break and rest you'll get over the entire illness faster than if you try to suffer though it.

Additionally, I personally know people that have pushed themselves when they've been sick with a cold or flu and ended up with further complications. (Viral Myocarditis and Guillan-Barre Syndrome to name a few).

I'm not trying to scare you, but I do want you to have respect for your body when it is trying to wage war against illness. I do want you to think twice about exercising when you are sick.

How to Adjust Your Training Plan

So, you've decided it's best to take a few days off and rest. What to do about that training plan?

If you miss between one and three days of a training plan, just forget about the days you missed and pick up on the next workout, though with these modifications:

  • Keep any intensity above Zone 2 out of all your workouts for about a week.
  • You may need to cut down the time of your workouts by 20 to 50 percent. Do enough so that you feel good and leave the workout wanting more.
  • If you start a workout and feel worse as you get going, just stop the workout and try another day.

If you miss three to seven days of a training plan due to illness, forget about the days you missed and pick up on the next workout with these modifications:

  • Keep any intensity above Zone 2 out of all your workouts for one to two weeks, maybe more. Keep any intensity above Zone 3 out of your workouts for an additional two weeks.
  • Definitely cut down the time of your workouts by 20 to 50 percent. Do enough so that you feel good and leave the workout wanting more.
  • If you start a workout and feel worse as you get going, just stop the workout and try another day.

If you miss more than two weeks of a training plan due to illness, you'll need to go back and rebuild lost fitness. If you are in the preparation or base phase, there are some options:

  • Go back and repeat the three or four weeks prior to the onset of the illness. This may mean you eliminate some intensity workouts later in the plan or closer to the race. This is a better choice than trying to skip foundation workouts and go right to intense exercises.
  • Continue with the training plan, but keep any intensity above Zone 2 out of all your workouts for at least two weeks—maybe more. Keep any intensity above Zone 3 out of your workouts for two more weeks. (A minimum of four weeks total.)
  • Definitely cut down the time of your workouts by 20 to 50 percent. Do enough so that you feel good and leave the workout wanting more.
  • If you start a workout and feel worse as you get going, just stop the workout and try another day.
  • Once you begin to do faster workouts, you may need to reduce the volume (accumulated time) of the intensity scheduled by 20 to 50 percent.

Most of the time, it's okay to do some strength training if you feel like doing something but you don't want to risk an aerobic workout. Don't get carried away and make yourself exhausted, just go push around some iron and get the blood moving.

If you are sneezing, coughing and carrying on with your illness, most people (including you, if the roles were reversed) would prefer you stay home until you're healthy.

As always, health first, performance second. Get well soon!


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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