Thoughts On Training While Sick

September 15, 2021

This topic is a bit controversial so I want to start with a disclaimer. Consult your physician before exercising, healthy or not. It brings peace of mind and avoids possible complications in the gym. Let’s start with a scenario. You wake up and right away something feels off. You are overly tired, maybe have a headache and feel your sinuses swelling from the inside out. That “bleh” feeling is instantly recognized as a common cold. After dragging yourself out of bed you drink some tea and remember today is chest day. You then ask yourself “should I train?”. This is where the inner debate begins.

On the one hand, you don’t feel like doing anything except crawling back to bed. Your head hurts, maybe you have the sniffles and you just feel like crap. On the other hand, you do not want to break your training cycle for fear of losing momentum, gains and your pump. What do you do? To be honest it depends on a few things. It heavily depends on severity of symptoms but it also depends on your perspective of decency. To start, sport doctors have found that symptoms ranging from the neck up generally allow for moderate intensity exercise without risk of worsening. To elaborate, symptoms such as runny nose, headache, and sore throat are generally acceptable.

Neck down symptoms such as muscle aches, chest cough and fevers require complete rest. The logic comes from body temperature and risk of infection. Symptoms associated with the neck up are generally low risk as core temperature is in a stable state. This isn’t to say you will feel great while exercising, it simply means you probably CAN exercise without risk of worsening your symptoms. When core temperature fluctuates, your body is trying to fight off some sort of infection and allocates all physiological systems to do so. Increasing core temperature through exercise while running a fever will only increase severity of symptoms and decrease overall health. Let’s say you group yourself as the “neck up” person. Although you probably could exercise, I recommend modification. For instance, decrease volume of activity. If today was supposed to be 5 sets of 10 reps, consider dropping a few sets. Maybe skip the accessory work and substitute some mobility drills. The goal is to maintain when feeling under the weather, not set records.

As for aerobic activity, I would probably skip that. The aim is to avoid drastically increasing core temperature for fear of your illness getting worse. If you must do cardio, ease up the intensity. Forget the hill sprints or intervals and try an easy jog. Long distance runner? Cut that distance in half. Use the workout as a chance to clear the sinuses and your mind.

What about you “neck down” people? It’s simple really. Stay home and rest. We’ve all been there before. You wake up with chills, muscle aches and a fever to boil water. When you are really sick, you know it. There isn’t any doubt in your mind when it comes to a hard bout of illness. If you can even question whether to train or not, you probably can.

The other concern is subjective and depends more on where you will be training. Assuming you have the neck up symptoms and are willing to modify your workout the next step involves going to the gym and using equipment. For you home gym owners, this isn’t a huge concern but for those using facilities elsewhere you may be in a tight spot. What I’m referring to is your perspective on spreading germs. Let’s be honest, if someone is sneezing or sniffling you tend to avoid them like the plague. If you are at the gym and our pal Sniffles is grabbing the bar on the squat rack, chances are you probably aren’t going to use it. If you do, you definitely aren’t happy about it and grumble as images of disease float through your head.

Sniffles has contaminated the equipment meaning there is a higher chance for everyone else to feel like crap. I can understand both sides of the equation. Sniffles is trying to maintain his routine. Maybe he’s the type of guy who if he misses one day, the rest become easier to miss too. He has a hard time starting from scratch so he fears breaking his routine. On the other hand, it isn’t ideal that everyone is exposed to your contaminants. Although we empathize with you feeling under the weather, we don’t want to join you. Keep that in the back of your mind.

Here’s what I recommend: be respectful and take precautions. I completely agree with not letting some mucous and a headache bring you down but think about the other patrons. They are trying to improve their health, not hinder it. If you are going to the gym, bring some hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes with you. Clean your hands before grasping bars and give a good wipe to all the equipment your body touches. If there are crowded areas at the gym, avoid them until they clear. These little decencies make a huge difference in reducing the spread of disease and people will acknowledge your efforts. They may not approve of you training while sick but they will definitely respect your efforts to keep everyone else healthy. The next time you wake up feeling groggy, really analyze your symptoms. If you decide to hit the gym, be respectful and try to avoid spreading your illness to everyone else. If you decide to hit the pillows, count gains instead of sheep. 1 Rep…2 Reps…3 Reps…ZZZ