Friday, December 23, 2011

Training through illness: The common cold

Winter is now fully in swing and the snow has begun to fall all around the UK. With the snow comes everyone’s favourite winter friend... the common cold (Coronaviruses and Rhinoviruses) and if you're particularly unlucky, the dreaded influenza (flu!) (2).

How can I prevent illness?

It goes without saying that the best way to stay healthy and train well is to avoid illness in the first place. However, it has been proven that high intensity training effects the respiratory system and the immune system making you more susceptible to illness. This would suggest that it is inevitable that you're going to get ill through training but this is not necessarily true and a good way to prevent illness and use training as part of a healthy life style is to be sure that you have a diet that is fit for your lifestyle and high in nutritional value. 

Plenty of Vitamin C "has been shown to affect some parts of the immune system and accordingly, it seems biologically conceivable that it could have effects on the increased incidence of respiratory infections caused by heavy physical stress."(1) Which basically means, if you want to avoid getting the dreaded lurgy in the first place, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (like oranges and green peppers) to stay healthy. If, however, you have already contracted an illness then it's time to start working towards making a recovery.

So the clincher is this; does training through illness serve any benefit?

Although all illnesses have different effects on the body, many symptoms are fairly common.(3) Resting heart rate and breathing are elevated causing an increase in fluid loss leading to increased dehydration. Having a fever will also directly affect how your training pays off. The higher the fever the worse the level of dehydration will be and the overall result is that any training you do will have a negative affect.  

When you're feeling lethargic, aching, and generally just feeling a bit crap then why bother if it’s going to have a negative effect on your sports performance?

In deciding whether to continue exercising when ill, you should first consider the following:

Will you benefit from exercising when ill?

Many people taking part in athletic sports become obsessed with training. However, most climbers do not train specifically or often to warrant looking for this advice, so if you're reading this then you're probably in the training trap and will be reluctant to stop.

The universal reason given to explain this behavior is that athletes fear losing the benefits of long periods of training by taking time off, no matter how brief. Fitness loss is real but how fast it occurs is can be hard to know. The facts are that a small brake in training will have little or no negative effects and may even have produce positive results as it gives your body time to heal.

(4)Several studies have looked tackled this subject to find out the truth about how fast detraining occurs. The results were dependent on how long athletes had been training prior to stopping. For people who had been training regularly for over a year, a complete stop of exercise resulted in a loss of 50% in all measured areas of fitness after three months. For people who had been exercising for 3 months before stopping, there was a 100% loss of in fitness improvements after a 3 month break. So you can assume that the longer you have been training the longer it takes for detraining to take effect.

For seasoned athletes, if you decrease the volume of training rather than stopping all together the detraining is hugely reduced. Those who have been training for a short period of 3 months suffer no negative effects from lowering the training intensity.

When you're ill your body is unable to train at its standard level either way so training at this time is always questionable. What you need to ask yourself is will you gain anything from training at this sub standard ability or is it better to let your body heal?

Will the recovery take longer? 
It has long been discovered that intense training over sustained periods of time takes its toll on the immune system. So taking part in any such intense activity would be rendered counter intuitive. However, working out at a mild intensity for short periods of time likely poses little risk to prolonging the duration of illness.

Will you make the illness worse?
There is no doubt that working out at high intensity training during illness will prolong recovery and make the illness worse. Also the side effects of being ill such dehydration can be a catalyst for yet more physical injuries. To decide whether you will see benefits from continued training whilst ill consider the following.

Consider the location your symptoms and where they are restricted to.  If they are concentrated around the head and neck only, e.g. congestion, sore throat, headache, then you are unlikely to make things worse by exercising. 

If however your symptoms are below the neck, e.g. cough, fever or diarrhea, then exercise may pose a significant risk to your health and well being.

Will you affect others?
The majority of viral illnesses are passed by hand-to-hand contact, i.e. you touch something and then someone else does. These are fairly common knowledge and so try to avoid hugging or using someone else's computer etc. The general rule is that the day your symptoms begin to improve is the day you are no longer contagious. 

Based on all of these considerations, if you do decide to exercise when ill follow these suggestions:
  • Start slow. If you feel well enough then increase your intensity gradually but never to your highest capacity. If you feel unwell, stop. In other words, listen to your body!
  • Ensure you increase your fluid intake by at least 50% during your workout.
  • Try to minimize your infectious risk to others.
  • See a physician if your symptoms persist more than ten days or seriously worsen.
Whatever you decide, train hard, train Smart and goBiG!

Helpful references:
1. Vitamin C and Common Cold Incidence:  
A Review of Studies with Subjects Under Heavy Physical Stress, 
H. Hemilä

2. Prevention and Control of Influenza, 
Nicole M. Smith, PhD,;jsessionid=ZEB3FtIAtIFSh2oDX2I3.80


George L. Kirkpatrick MD,

4. Short term and long term detraining: is there any difference between young-old and old people?,

    N F Toraman,

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