This post is a response to a comment comprised of questions about dealing with illness and training for a marathon.
Getting sick during the training and buildup to a big race is common. Even world class athletes have seen their plans and performances disrupted by a poorly timed illness.
If it happens to you, what can you do to mitigate the negative impact on your training and race performance?
First Priority: Get Well as Soon as Possible
Second Priority: Maintain Fitness
Both of these are such broad topics that much can be said about them. To keep this post reasonable and useful, I’ll just deal with the general approach and some simple actions to take.
Most illnesses acquired during training for an event are infections from exposure to some pathogen in combination with susceptibility from a weakened immune system from the stress of a prolonged hard training plan. Most common disruptive illnesses are cold, flu or gastrointestinal (typically food poisoning).
You can minimize your exposure to pathogens by practicing good hygiene, but you can’t eliminate all potential exposure. Travel, crowds of people and eating at restaurants always expose you to pathogens that will be new to your immune system. The immune system’s lack of experience in how to deal with a particular pathogen can lead to sickness even if you are healthy and not weakened from the stress of intense training.
If you do come down to a cold or flu what can you do to get well as quick as possible? Think:
Sleep, Sweat, Swill
Rest gives your body a break from stress and focus on healing and mounting an immune response to fight the infection. Stay warm to the point of sweating. A fever is one of your body’s tools to fight infection. Unless a fever is very high above 103 degrees F, avoid trying to bring it down. Let the fever do its thing which is killing (cooking) pathogens. Take saunas, bury yourself in blankets, turn up the thermostat in the house and wear lots of clothes. Drink a lot of good pure water and tasty remineralizing broths and soups. There really is something to chicken soup expediting the recovery from a cold or flu. Keep the elimination functions flowing by drinking more than usual. If you have loose stools from gastrointestinal infection, let it take its course. It is your body trying to get rid of the offending culprit. Make sure you drink a lot and replenish your gut health with fermented foods, sauerkraut, kumbucha, kefir, etc.
There are a lot of choices of remedies for treating infection. Some that show at least a little promise to shorten the lifetime of an illness are: Zinc, Echinacea, Goldenseal, Elderberry, Oregano Essential Oil, Vitamins A, B, C, D to name some. Ask anyone and they will have an opinion of their favorite remedy.
How to Maintain Fitness when Sick
The rest portion of addressing getting well, can be counterproductive to the second priority of maintaining fitness. So what can you do to stay fit while you are trying to heal?
Laying or sitting around for long periods of times is the quickest way for your body to dump fitness. Form follows function. If you are not moving, your form (body) does not think it needs to keep all the muscle and metabolic overhead required for movement. Within a few days of laying or sitting around all day, fitness deteriorates significantly as muscles start to atrophy, red bloods cells are shed and new ones not produced. It does not take nearly as much activity to maintain fitness as it takes to build fitness. While you are trying to get well, keep a regular routine of walking around many times throughout the day and even perhaps do some very slow easy runs. Just make sure you are staying warm and not stressing yourself as that can prolong the illness. Avoid interfering with the first priority of getting well.
This post on micro dosing your training may be helpful.
When and How to Resume Full Training
Once you are well, you should be able to pick back up your training plan close to where you left off. Perhaps go back a week in the progression for every week or partial week you were laid up ill.
Whether to reschedule a race and abandon your plans or to go ahead and do a race as planned boils down to a blend of common sense and goals for that event. If you are still sick and vulnerable, it is not wise to do a challenging event. But if the race is important, hard to get into, a bucket list event, then the reasons for doing it may outweigh the lack of being prepared for it. If you don’t do it, you will never know how you could have done. There are cases of people surprising themselves with their performance after being forced to take some time off due to illness. Maybe, they needed a little rest.