I recently caught a mild cold – cough, headache, runny nose, nothing major and it got me asking the question, should I be training while I’m sick? Before I start, let me preface this article with the sentence, I am not a doctor and this does not constitute any form of advice, simply a collection of opinions from around the internet along with my own thoughts.
My first point to make is that if you train at a public facility or gym, then could I make the strongest suggestion to skip training there. You’re a carrier of an illness that is highly contagious and it isn’t cool to give other people your germs. Even if you carried around a container of Lysol wipes and wore a face mask, the risk to other people just isn’t worth it. For the sake of public health, if you are sick stay at home.
On the other hand, if you have a home gym or are considering training outdoors or the like, then you may ponder this question yourself. If you didn’t even ask yourself if you should go out and train, then definitely continue to Netflix and recover, there is no point in forcing yourself out of rest to go train. The moment you consider training, then that’s when you can start looking at getting back into the gym.
There is not much evidence out there that suggests training will hinder or delay recovery from a cold or flu, so I wouldn’t worry about that. A general rule of thumb is the ‘neck rule’, that is if your symptoms stem above the neck; runny nose, minor headache, nagging cough, then you’re in the clear to train. However, once the symptoms start to include a fever, body aches, diarrhea, vomiting, or irregularities with body temperature, then you’re still not in the clear to get back to the gym.
There are a lot of different thoughts with regards to training while sick, the take away point is to listen to your body first and foremost, if you are in doubt about training, then there really isn’t any harm in taking an extra day off. On the other hand, if you really want to go and train then there is a low probability that you’ll make your symptoms worse.
There is evidence to suggest that training while sick will actually improve your recovery. If you pick the right kind of exercise for your body, sickness level and pre-existing health levels then exercise could be just what the internet doctor ordered. By exercising, you’re flushing your body with blood, you’re elevating the heart rate and essentially increasing the processing speed of the body’s ability to process pathogens. By raising the core temperature of the body, this may also help combat certain viral infections. This is why our body’s temperature rises during a fever. Certain viruses and bacteria are quite sensitive to heat changes and our body’s have evolved over time to combat certain infections by increasing our core temperature in an attempt to fight the infection. However, the common strain of advice was to steer clear of training if you are running a high fever.
The mildest approach, would suggest to only engage in light to moderate exercise. If you’re going to do some sort of physical activity, it’s best to stick with walking, bicycling, stretching or some other form of mild movement. Depending on your existing level of conditioning and previous training regiment, maybe this would be the best course of action for you.
Next option is to continue training, but with some sort of decrease in volume, intensity, length or any other variable. Basically, do what you were normally doing, but less of it all around. If you’re scheduled for a squat day, maybe only do your warm up and working set and no other accessory work. If you are doing a high volume program, then cut all counts by half. One of the variables of your training would be lowered, in order to compensate for the fewer resources available for your body to recover. The principle here is that you want to train just enough in order to maintain consistency and avoid any detraining effects.
Then finally there is the school of thought that you could go all out and set some new PR’s. The logic here is that the body is full of antibodies pumping through the body to fight the infection, the interesting side effect of this is they can have a positive effect on strength output. The caveat here is you’ll still probably have problems maintaining an effective level of intensity, since your body has been spending resources combatting an illness. So if you do decide to take this approach to sick training, then you’ll want to focus on heavier weights and stay away from lots of volume and multiple hour gym sessions.
To sum it up again, the best course of action is to listen to your body and use some common sense. Clearly, if you’re sleeping all day with barely enough energy to turn on the TV then the best course of action is to stay in bed. Just remember, why you’re training in the first place – the improve your life through strength over the long run. Missing or delaying a workout by a couple of days is not the end of the world, and if it means you hit 405 on the deadlift next week, then so be it.
If you want to train, go ahead. If you want to lay on the couch and Netflix, that’s cool too. Both can do your sick body good.