Training when Sick – Q&A

Question: Hi, I was wondering if it was ok to go work out when I was sick?  Do you have any guidelines for this?

Answer: First I’d like to start with an old joke.

Q: Which is faster, heat or cold?
A: Heat, because it’s easy to catch a cold.

Ok, with that out of the way, some commentary on training when sick.  This seems especially relevant now that’s it’s winter and people are often carrying around various bugs that they can pass to one another (and I’m not just talking about drunken make out sessions at the office Christmas party that makes everybody uncomfortable the next day).  This was something we dealt with constantly in Salt Lake City; since we skated on a big ice oval, the air was pretty stagnant and anybody who carried a bug to the oval often gave it to everyone else.  Which brings me to my first point.

When you’re sick and especially when you’re contagious, do everyone a favor and stay out of the gym.  Here’s why: it’s selfish as hell of you to put everyone else at risk of being sick.  Yes, we all know that you’re body obsessed and addicted to training.  But it’s not all about you, believe it or not.  I’m as sociopathic as the next guy (perhaps a touch moreso) but making a bunch of other people sick by being a selfish asshole is just rude.  Gyms are a veritable haven of germs to begin with and making a bunch of other people sick because you’re too neurotic to miss a single day of training is bullshit.  If you’re contagious, stay home.

But let’s assume that you’re not contagious, or you train at home, or whatever makes my paragraph above irrelevant. Can you train when sick? More importantly should you?  Finally, if you can and want to, what should you actually do?

And the answer to the first question is that it depends.  The general rule of thumb is that if your sick is only in your neck or above (e.g. stuffy nose, sneezing, headache, sore throat; basically the stuff that Nyquil fixes), you’re cleared to train.  It may not be much fun but you can train.

However, if the sick has moved lower, such as a chest cough or chest cold, the general advice is to avoid training.  I’ll be honest that I forget the exact reason for this, something to do with it getting much worse.  I think you could cause real problems.  Again I forget offhand and it doesn’t really matter; just take my word for it.

But that’s the general rule: if it’s neck or above, you can train; below the neck and you should skip training.

But even if you can, should you train?  Again, the answer is that it depends.  But here it depends more on you and less on the fact that you’re sick.  It depends on whether or not you have any self-control.  Because if you don’t, you better not train unless you want to make it worse.

To explain that I have to bore you with a bit of physiology and how exercise affects the immune system.  Simply, exercise and immune system function have a rather complex relationship.  It’s actually described by what is called an inverted-U shaped dose response curve. Essentially people who get no exercise tend to have poorer immune system function than folks who train some; but people who train excessively tend to impair their immune system.

Especially acutely.  People who do very intensive or extensive (duration) training often find themselves getting sick afterwards.  Upper respiratory tract infections (URTI’s) are endemic among marathoners for example. But it’s not that the event makes you sick.  Rather, extreme workouts tend to impair immune system function; if you are then exposed to some sick, you’re more likely to pick it up.  Basically there’s a window of vulnerability that occurs after extreme training that briefly impairs immune system function.

Over a decade ago (man, I’m old), I found empirically that a reasonably short, moderate intensity workout (talking 20-40 minutes at a middling intensity, either cardio or the weight room) usually helped me get over being sick.  That is, sitting around didn’t help and working too hard made it worse.  But a moderate workout helped me get over it faster.  When I’d start to feel something coming on, I’d go do a moderate workout and that would help.

As laid out in Supplements Part 2, I’ve found in recent years that megadosing glutamine and Vitamin C helps folks get past stuff so long as they start with it at the first sign of being sick. I also have what I call The Cure ™ but I have to keep some secrets so you don’t get to know about it yet.

Anyhow, research later showed up to support my observation: moderate intensity and volume activity bumps up immune system function while no exercise or too much/too intense activity impairs immune system function.   Which brings us to you.

If you have the self-control to go to the gym and do a moderate duration moderate intensity workout, not only is it ok, it will probably make you get better more quickly.  But if you lack the self-control to keep it in your pants, and feel compelled do stay in the gym forever or blow your brains out with intensity, you’re going to make it worse.  If that’s the case, you should stay the hell home and maybe get a self-help book on impulse control.

And that also tells you how you can/should train if you choose to (and can stay in control). You must keep both the duration and intensity moderate.  Again, if you can’t do that, stay at home and get someone to bring you soup.  It worked for grandma and it will work for you.

If you do cardio, keep the intensity in the easy aerobic range (130-150 HR).  Thirty to forty minutes tops.   Don’t even think about intervals.   Just nice moderate steady-state cardio.  The kind that everyone says is ineffective and makes you fat but which seems to do nothing but create great athletes and leanness.  Yeah, that.

If you lift, keep it far away from failure and moderate volume and intensity.  Like 80% of your maximum capacity for a handful of sets.  Just get in, get your pump on and get out of the gym.

And if you can’t show that much self-control, stay the hell out of the gym.  Because if you go in and destroy yourself, you’re going to make it worse.  Then you won’t just have missed a day or two of training while you got over the sick naturally, you’ll get real sick and miss a week or more.  And it’ll be your own fault for being stupid with poor impulse control.

Happy Holidays!

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