In Response to Illness

In the past nothing highlighted the difference between the way I coach myself and the way I coach an athlete than the issue of sickness. Being self-coached – a slightly pretentious way of saying, doing what I like – illness leaves me choosing between how bad I feel and how bad I will feel if I don’t train; a matter of health versus guilt and typically guilt wins. Not to say I disregard my own health, rather I am very bad at judging the extent of an illness, requiring strong symptoms and extreme discomfort to stop me training. Effectively I gamble the short-term advantage of another workout against the potential risk of prolonged sickness. Mostly I’ve been lucky. In contrast, I prefer not to gamble with my athletes’ health, when I’m aware of illness my advice is far more cautionary; perhaps I cost them a fraction of their race fitness, but I never risk more.

As last week’s Lanzarote training camp drew to a close I was faced with a self-coaching dilemma – train or fold? The hint of a cold, that had been there from day one, advanced rapidly under a heavy training load, halfway through camp I had all the symptoms of a head cold. I didn’t stop. By the fourth day I would have rated the ache in my legs more of a limiter than the phlegm in my throat, but this was the turning point. Stronger symptoms and lack of sleep didn’t stop me, with blocked sinuses making every tumble turn uncomfortable and my spit lining the roads, I trained through till the final day. As I shivered in the early morning warmth it was obvious I couldn’t handle a six hour ride, the others left to circuit the island and I allowed myself to imagine I’d go for a spin later before collapsing into bed. I stopped. Drifting in and out of sleep I pondered how I survived Epic Camp Italy.

There are two stories I recount from that camp: one involving a watch, incorrect timezones and a mad dash to ensure camp completion, and the other a head cold so thick it drove my roommate to a quiet sofa for the night. My time in the Dolomites was marred by sickness, the cold developed early and with the constant stress on my body, persisted. I never stopped. Motivation was strong – I’d spent months training just to complete this week in the Italian mountains, I was surrounded by strong athletes and I wasn’t about to be the weakest among them. Laying on my bed in the spartan La Santa apartment I wondered if I no longer had that motivation, was that drive gone? Memories fade, I couldn’t compare the two. Perhaps the Italian illness had grown with each retelling, maybe a points game was all that was required to drag my weakened body round the island now. At the time it was moot; I lacked the energy to decide.

I returned from Lanzarote to more illness. Head cold passed, stomach bug arrived. The days off extend from one through to four. Four days of recovery after five days of training, I felt like a foolish weekend warrior, where was the consistency? Here was my guilt, after a year of inadequate performance a voice in my head responds to hints of failure: you’ve lost it, the drive is gone, put your racing behind you. It falls on deaf ears. My attitude has changed, I balance training differently, but I still know how to push and to hurt, I know how to dig deep when I need to. Weathering illness, toughing out training on a camp makes for great stories, they’re the stock of coffee stops, but history inflates the circumstances. I’ve no measure of how ill I was in Italy, but I know that despite toughing it out and training hard I did not race well after that camp. I’ll never know the impact resting might have had, perhaps I should feel the same guilt for training through as I do when I rest?

Coached or not, the choice to train comes down to an individual and I’m not sure we are well equipped to make it. We’re poor judges between short-term and long-term impact, overestimating the cost of a missed session and undervaluing the price of extended illness, there’s a bias towards training. Aware of my nature I increasingly err on the side of caution, recognising that recovering and effectively training may prove more productive than my default of training through. As I did in Lanzarote, I will take a day in bed. This recent reluctancy to gamble may indicate weaker motivation, but I prefer to see it as a sign I’ve matured, recognising the value in good training and good health. I won’t let guilt drive the choice to train.

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  • Honest thoughts Russ. If the illness is viral related we know there are cardiac risks with training while ill.
    Joel F’s recent comments recently struck a chord with me on this as food for thought….

  • Funnily I saw that blog just after posting mine, I liked the point that it takes a certain toughness not to train.

    But toughing out training does make a better story than being smart and resting up when ill. It’s easy to be drawn into that and feel the need to simply log the hours – for completeness or for consistency sakes. It misses the point that when we talk about consistency, we don’t just mean hours we mean completion of the required training, dragging yourself through a few more hours far below the intended effort isn’t productive.

    At least being ill ensured I met the goal of being able to train the week after I returned from camp. I’ve recovered and lost the fatigue in one go.


  • RobQuantrell

    What a fantastic post Russ – you nailed so many of the thoughts I feel when I get ill (especially during camps and other “high value” training cycles). As you say, ultimately its the athletes choice, but its shocking how many times I trade short term stats for long term health.

  • Devin

    Gordo also comments on a similar hypothetical involving overload with a training camp (and following up that week of overload) vs regular training midway through this post:

    I made a comment on your last post before departing for camp with regards to going big on the first day. Do you think the sickness “hole” wouldn’t have been so deep had you not gone big on day one? I know its speculation at this point but just wondering if you thought that could have made a difference. Which leads into my question of what to cut when sick? Duration? Intensity? Workouts all together? Do you have a general go-to practice on this?

  • I will say, every Epic Camp I did overloaded me beyond those weekly minimums! Overall I enjoy the experience of camps and pushing myself, but would say in the scheme of things a long period of progressive, consistent training does far more good.

    Hard to say with the sickness – the virus was probably there when I arrived and came on properly 4-5 days in, by which time I’d done 4 heavy days, one bigger than the first. The first day ended up being a little more moderate than planned due to a others being ill during the ride. I suspect I would have got sick however I’d approached day one, perhaps if it was lighter I might not have got sick till the very end of camp. I think the bigger error on my part was training through the first day of proper illness, symptoms weren’t huge, but I wasn’t that well, resting then and attempting something the next day would have worked better. Since returning I had a few more days sickness then a second bout of a strong cold, I caught something potent!

    What to cut is the trickiest question, my natural inclination is to cut intensity as I find duration easier to handle, at least that’s my perception. That said I think extremes of any of the training variables are just going to delay recovery and possibly make the situation worse. My default now is if in condition to train opting for steady sessions of moderate duration, probably around the 1 hour mark at most, perhaps longer for a steady ride if conditions are good. Typically I switch to something like a daily easy paced run if I feel reasonable or a daily steady ride up to 2 hours. I am increasingly less inclined to swim as I don’t think chlorine and the pool environment does much to help a cold.

    As I wrote this blog I realised that the notion of hard and fast rules for dealing with illness didn’t really exist. Obviously there are times when it’s clear to do nothing, but we all struggle in the grey area where perhaps we can train and perhaps we can’t. In general assessment my feeling is not training on the first day like this makes sense and then evaluating improvement afterwards and switching to moderate exercise until fully recovered.