Sick and Tired? Here’s What To Do About Training.

As triathletes our approach to training can be detrimental to outcomes.  We start a season with a goal, a training plan, and a drive to get’r done at all costs.  We have set up a training season, with a goal time, and goal placement in mind.  Our wiring at an early age is to ignore signals from the body and be tough in our athletic pursuits. You have workouts on the schedule, and need to check off those boxes.  You need to show commitment at all costs to the “plan”. This mentality of checking off the boxes, ultimately leads to sub optimal performance on race day.  Then the head scratching starts.  Illness is an experience we all have in a season.  How you deal with illness during training can be a variable that can make or break your race day performance.  No one gets time, or placement credit for doing everything in his or her training plan on race day.  You will get credit for being logical, in making each training day as optimal as possible.  Illness makes performance poor, so why would you bother covering the duration of a workout with poor output?  Understanding how to adjust workouts when sick is a quick fix to enhance future performances in workouts. Through personal experience and working with athletes, here are some guidelines to get back to 100% as soon as possible.


The first step is to understand early symptoms, and be proactive.  An increase in resting HR, or higher HR values relative to effort during workouts is the first signal something is brewing inside of you.  Reacting to these early symptoms, by driving intensity down during prescribed workouts, or just taking a day or two completely off, can ward off a heavier onset of illness.  

If the illness is a head cold, training can resume as dictated. However, once an illness seems to spread outside of the head area, care must be taken to ensure you get back to optimal health before adhering to the prescribed stresses of your training plan.  This is when the “checking off the boxes” mentality of the type A athlete must be quelled.

Once an illness starts to make its way below the neckline, you can actually cause an increase in the severity of symptoms by continuing to move forward with prescribed training intensities.  What can start out as a simple cold, can quickly progress into a more severe illness since you are adding stress to the body.  The body will start to shift its focus into combating the germ, so you don’t want to get in the way of this vital function.

When an athlete suggests to me that they aren’t feeling well, and imply an illness has spread out of the neck/head area, I will prescribe an initial 24-48 hour off period from training.  During this time, nutrition, hydration and rest are the most important workouts that can be accomplished to ensure the illness does not progress.  Taking these few days completely off will only enhance the quickness of getting back to 100% health, and normal training.  The worst move would be to continue to add stress to the body, since it will only lead to allowing symptoms to linger, and cause suboptimal workout performance.  “I’m so glad I road my bike today while feeling horrible, and putting out 30 less watts than normal”- said no triathlete ever.  After this initial break from training, I will use the following guidelines to gauge what type of training can be accomplished going forward:

  • If an athlete feels 85% normal, or worse, there is no training that is worth doing.  The athlete still needs to continue to rest and recover.  This is always a tough pill to swallow since as athletes we feel that because we aren’t training as dictated in the training plan we taking a step backwards in our progression.  There is no point, in ever continuing to swim, bike, run if we aren’t close to optimal health.  Moving forward at 85% or less will cause mediocre/poor workout performances.  Long term this will have an increase in negative impacts in overall fitness.  The efforts to drive performance at this health level are fruitless.
  • If an athlete is feeling a bit above 85%, I will have them cover durations of workouts at a VERY low, recovery effort.  If an athlete is feeling 85%-90%, I will have them cover durations at a recovery zone, and move a bit into aerobic zones.  If an athlete is feeling 90%-95%, they can cover workouts at aerobic zones.  At 95%-99% health, they can cover prescribed tempo zones during workouts.  Only when an athlete is at 100%, will I allow them to cover best effort workouts again.

Gauging percent health is always a grey area, especially for the upper end type A athlete.  Data from HR/performance numbers is usually the only way to make the point.  As a coach, you know when someone is “back”, so it becomes necessary to put forth more specific guidelines for performance outputs during workouts with athletes that aren’t quite being truthful with their symptoms.  The percent is more of a gauge of energy levels, and fuel levels, which is a good indication of where energy is flowing in the body.  Is energy still going towards fighting off illness, or going towards muscles for more vigorous activity levels?

Focus for the athlete needs to be in 24 hour windows.  Too often, our focus is how a day may negatively impact a race months down the road.  During your 24 hour focus, you need to divert energy into things directly in your control, and don’t waste energy on things out of your control.  Never make a decision today that will negatively impact your tomorrow.  The focus should be on diet, hydration, sleep and fueling.  When you nail those 4 things, every day, swim/bike/run performance will always fall into place.

Time dealing with an illness, and not working out is often viewed as time off or recovery.  It isn’t.  The body was under stress, so there is no need to make up the loss training stress.  Instead adjusting the future to support the time while ill is more productive long term.  The nutritional deficit post illness is significant, so it has to be respected. If make up workouts are done, they will ultimately overdraft the stress budget and open up more possibilities of illnesses in the future.

The quality of your season, and your performance at your A race will be dictated by how you deal with adversity in your daily training.  If illness is a hurdle you need to deal with in your season, be respectful to the needs of the body in order to get back to prime overall health.  Taking short time periods of no training, or adjusting intensities as you deal with a sickness will go a long way to improving the overall quality of your season.  If a workout can’t be done at 100%, you really have to ask yourself “is this effort going to be worth it long term?”, or “will what I do today, make be better tomorrow?” If the answer is no, then don’t do the workout.  Live to fight another day.  Checking off that box, just to complete the durations, never makes you a better athlete.

This post was written by QT2 Level 3 Coach, Vinny Johnson.

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