Training while sick is a nightmare for bodybuilders. It throws off your eating schedule, it’s harder to stay hydrated, sleep patterns change for the worse and it’s just generally a pretty bad time for all involved.
But the biggest drawback of being sick with a cold or the flu is not being able to go to the gym, and having to endure the feeling that all of your gains are slowly withering away while your body conserves its resources for your immune system’s war with a foreign invader.
So the ultimate question is, Can you train while sick? Read on the find the answer – it may surprise you!
Immune Response to Infection and Training
When you’re sick, your body mobilizes just like a country mobilizes for war. Chemicals begin to be produced throughout the body, including in the white blood cells and the cells lining blood vessels and the airways. The immune system contains a variety of natural substances called inflammatory mediators that help protect the body from infection. The names of some inflammatory mediators involved in colds include histamine, kinins, interleukins, and prostaglandins. These inflammatory mediators trigger mucus secretion and activate sneeze and cough reflexes while stimulating pain nerve fibers. All of these are the symptoms of a cold. Upper respiratory infections typically begin with a sore or scratchy throat, aversion to cold or alternating chills and feverish sensations, fatigue and muscle aches, and progress either to chest symptoms, such as cough and tightness, or to sinus problems. These symptoms can last from several days to several weeks.
Exercise does play a role in how our body’s immune system functions. In fact, one brief vigorous exercise session won’t cause an immune-suppressing effect, and one moderate-intensity exercise session can actually boost immunity in healthy weightlifters.
However, extremely prolonged low-intensity exercise and prolonged high-intensity exercise makes healthy athletes more susceptible to infection. For example, marathon runners can have a depressed immune system for up to 72 hours after a race!
Since your immune system is already compromised by a cold or flu, it makes sense that long and intense workouts are out of the question. However, brief, intense workouts or moderate-intensity workouts may be better tolerated. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the early stages of sickness, you may find yourself even stronger than when you were before you got sick.
Rules of Exercise When Sick
When to hit the gym:
If you have a cold and your symptoms include a sore throat, sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose, then you should be able to do some low-volume, moderate-to-high-intensity strength training sessions. You’ll probably find that your muscular endurance is compromised, and you’ll likely notice you’re out of breath faster. Keep the workout short. Aim for 5-8 reps at 70-80% of your 1RM for 3 sets/exercise. Don’t start a volume training program at this time. Keep your workouts short – nothing over 30 minutes.
When you shouldn’t train:
You shouldn’t be training while sick at all if you have a fever, serious chest congestion, stomach symptoms, or the flu. You likely will not even feel well enough to head to work or school that day, so training is out of the question and would only suppress your immune system further.
Get to bed early and get extra sleep. Numerous studies have shown that potent immune activators are released and many immune functions are greatly increased during deep sleep. Also, provide your body with plenty of fluids (no alcohol) and amino acids.
Do some extremely light cardio (walk outside to get some fresh air), and as you start to feel better you can even incorporate some light, low-volume bodyweight training to enhance your immune system.
Yes, you should train while sick during the first week that you’re recovering from a cold, but you should reduce the training intensity so you’re in the 70% range or your 1RM with moderate volume. However, you’ll likely feel weaker as your body re-establishes a state of balance however.