Should You Swim, Bike & Run When Sick! What Triathletes Should Do?!

Getting sick is never fun, but it can be especially frustrating for athletes who may face throwing their training out of whack – or worse, missing a big race. We’ll cover what do you do when you’re facing a cold, stomach bug, or runny nose.

Should I Do a Triathlon with A Cold?

Before answering this question, consider the “above the neck/below the neck” guideline. If someone are primarily experiencing symptoms above the neck or in the head (think sneezing, headaches, sore throat), it’s typically fine to train at a reduced capacity. Anything below the neck (like coughing, aches, or fever) means training is off the table. (Source)

If you try to push through an illness, you could face major consequences and setbacks in your training. If you wake up the morning of the race feeling crummy, you can decide if the potential consequences (worsening illness, longer recovery) are worth it to finish the race.

If you’re in the middle of a training block, the decision is a little easier. Let’s look at a few common examples and whether you can continue training:

Should I Train with A Runny Nose?

If someone have a runny nose (or its opposite: congestion), they can continue training. They would want to scale back the intensity so they don’t make their body feel worse, but light exercise may actually help them feel better overall.

Keep in mind that the blood vessels in your nose expand and dilate from exercise, so you may experience an extra runny nose during or after (Source).

Should You Do Sport with A Sore Throat?

If someone only have a minor sore throat, like an itchy feeling, it is fine to continue training. They will want to keep it to an easy effort so you don’t provoke worse symptoms. If their throat is particularly sore or if it hurts to swallow, it’s likely best to take the day off and see if they are feeling better the following day.

Sometimes a sore throat can be the first sign of a budding illness, so it’s best to check in with your body.

Should You Exercise with A Cough?

People should avoid exercising if they have a cough, as that’s usually a sign of a respiratory infection. This falls into the “below the head” category, as coughing typically originates from your lungs (meaning it’s different from the kind of cough one would force when clearing an itchy throat). Coughs can also spread viruses, so it’s best to stay away from people in order to prevent them from also getting sick.

How Does Being Sick Affect Athletic Performance?

Being sick can affect all parts of the body, even if the illness itself feels concentrated in one location. That’s because the heart is working overtime to help your body repair itself. This can result in a noticeable decrease in strength and a higher heart rate (Source).

Not only can this limit athletic performance at the moment, but it can also make it harder for the body to fight off the infection, leading to a longer recovery time overall.

It’s generally better to take a couple of days off to fully rest and recover, rather than continuing on and needing to take even more time off than you would have if you just handled it correctly in the first place.

What Do Pro Athletes Do when Sick?

Pro athletes typically follow the same pattern as amateurs: resting when needed, but pushing through if it’s something minor like a runny nose. In fact, athletes may take the recovery time more seriously because they know they need to keep their body at peak functioning order. (Source)

Of course, there are some athletes who make the decision to suffer through it, understanding the risks and accepting the consequences.

Should I Train with A Virus?

One should not train if you have a contagious virus, especially a respiratory illness. This is particularly true if they will be exercising around other people to avoid passing it on to them. Also, If they are experiencing fever, then they definitely need to back off the training as it is likely to make them feel even worse and prolong their symptoms. (Source)

If you’re feeling only minorly ill, like congestion, you can exercise at a reduced capacity.

Can Exercise Make the Flu Worse?

Yes, exercising when you have the flu can make the symptoms even worse. The immune system works best when it can focus on the task at hand (fighting off illness) and not be over-stressed from training. When someone trains intensely, their white blood cell count drops, while the cortisol (the stress hormone) can increase, which can interfere with the body’s infection-fighting process. (Source)

This can make you feel even more sluggish and sick, leading to a prolonged recovery time.

However, if you are experiencing mild symptoms of a common cold or allergy, you may actually feel better with some light exercise. While this isn’t the time to shoot for PRs, doing a low-effort 30-minute cardio activity can help.

What Do Athletes Eat when Sick?

It’s important to have a healthy diet at all times, especially during training, as this will help the body to prepare to fight off infection and keep the immune system in top working order. A nutrient-rich diet with enough calories to sustain the activity level is key. One common tip is to intake plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy fat, and lean protein. (Source)

A lot of people believe that supplements are the quick-fix answer when sick. Unfortunately, taking in an increased amount of Vitamin C is not a proven way to treat the effects of a cold (Source).

It won’t necessarily cause harm, but it’s unlikely to make much of a difference. It’s better to always consistently be consuming enough micro and macronutrients to keep your body strong and healthy.

How Do I Get Back to Workout After Being Sick?

After a significant illness, it’s best to wait 24-48 hours before beginning training again. This will both ensure that the individual is truly over the illness and help to prevent injury (Source).

Here are three steps to make sure you’re coming back stronger than ever:

Ease In

The first 2-4 workouts should be at a very light intensity. This will allow you to check for any signs of the illness returning, and it will act as a warm-up for your body. The longer you were out sick, the longer this easing-in process will take. It can be tempting to jump right back into the thick of training, but your body likely isn’t ready for that.

Focus on Recovery

While you should always have a solid recovery plan, it’s extra important when returning from an illness. This includes stretching, mobility work, sleep, and plenty of hydration.

Reschedule Key Sessions

A few days of missed workouts will not have a huge impact on your athletic performance. However, if you’re getting close to a race and missed some key sessions, you can find a way to schedule them into your adapted plan.

This will help you stay on track for the big day – just be sure your body is ready for the effort.

Final Thoughts

Getting sick can really derail your training, but it’s best to make sure you’re taking care of your body. After all, you’re likely drawn to your sport for the health benefits, so do what is needed to stay healthy and competitive.

Aprill Emig

Based out of Duluth, MN Aprill loves to write about the outdoors, education, and all forms of adventure. You can find her mountain biking, running, or playing roller derby.

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