Nothing can bring your training to a screeching halt like a cold can. Unfortunately, the two seem to be a match made in heaven because as your training volume or intensity increases, your immune system’s ability to fight off bacteria and viruses inevitably decreases.  I know reading that you must think, “What is she talking about – I thought exercise was good for you and kept you healthy???” While it is true that exercise and fitness do help maintain a strong immune system, the flip side is that too little or too much both can negatively affect your immune system and increase your risk of getting sick.  It is for this reason that athletes, such as triathletes, need to be careful of crossing that fine line as well as knowing what to look for. As I have often been told and often tell people myself, “if it’s above the neck – it’s okay to train, if it’s below the neck – rest up “.

In more scientific terms, there are basically two different types of illnesses to look out for this time of year: The flu, which is caused an Influenza virus, and the common cold, which is caused by viruses such as the rhinovirus. Obviously, most people know that the flu is more severe than a common cold as it usually comes chock full of body aches, typically a high fever and when you have it, even getting out of bed is a struggle. Thus, it goes without saying that your body’s immune system is taxed much more by the flu than by the common cold and therefore if you have the flu, you should suspend training. Why? Because training with the flu would not only be detrimental to recovery and adaptation, but also to your overall health. This is because while training can help us gain muscle, lose fat and feel good, it is a catabolic activity.  For this, the body needs to be in good health to allow it to go from the catabolic state caused by the exercise to an anabolic state of recuperation and muscle growth. Therefore, if you have the flu, your body is already fighting a catabolic state caused by the flu.  Training under these conditions would only add more catabolism, which in turn would negatively affect your immune system against the virus, causing you to get even sicker. The moral here is that, you SHOULD NOT be training if you have the flu. I am going to repeat that again: You SHOULD NOT be training if you have the flu.

After the flu eventually runs its course, start back up slowly and don’t pressure yourself to work too hard. Just do what you feel up to, remembering that your number one priority is getting better.

If instead you have a common cold and the virus is on the mildside, exhibiting only a minor runny nose, slight coughing and sneezing, you may be able to train.  HOWEVER, It would be advantageous and overall smart to keep the intensity to a minimum. If the cold is making you feel rather tired and achy, and you have a sore throat, taking a break to get some extra rest until the symptoms start to diminish is probably the best medicine. Overall you should strive to avoid making it any harder for the immune system to recover by introducing more catabolic activity.

Once you return to training, fight the urge to immediately jump back in where you left off, as it may take your body up to a week to recover from even a minor cold. Remember, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, be slightly under-trained and YET healthy, than it is to be over-trained and sick.

MoreStress Management for the Athlete

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