Training and the Common Cold or Flu

Guides

We train to feel fit and healthy, yet we can still get knocked down by the common cold or flu. What should we do when we do catch a bug to give ourselves the best chances for a rapid recovery and minimal disruption to our training?

Dour - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Floris GERTS (Nertherlands / Team Roompot Nederlandse Loterij) pictured during Le Samyn 2018 for Elite men a one day cyclingrace on 27-02-2018 - photo Tim van Wichelen/Cor Vos © 2018

Introduction

I hope your 2022 is off to a great start and that you have set some smart goals for your training this year. After my recent battle with a brutal week-long cold, I have finally been able to get back into a rhythm. With that in mind, I wanted to share some tips on avoiding seasonal illness, as well as what to do when you do find yourself under the weather.

First off, given our COVID era, if you do experience any typical cold or flu symptoms, the first thing to do is to get yourself tested and to self-isolate in order to avoid spreading infection to family and friends!

Frequent exercise is typically considered terrific for your immune system. However, as training volume and/or intensity increase, your body’s ability to fight off viruses decreases. So, although some training can be beneficial for the immune system, too much increases the risk of contracting an infection. Few things can bring your training to a screeching halt like the cold or flu. Because of this, cyclists need to be especially aware of overtraining and take proactive steps to prevent seasonal illness.

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5 Tips to Stay Healthy

Washing Hands: Washing hands frequently can help protect you from getting sick as well as preventing the spread of infection. Be sure to wash hands after sneezing/coughing and before handling food or eating.

Diet: Add color to your meals! Green, leafy vegetables are rich in vitamins and can help maintain an efficient immune system. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption since alcohol can damage dendritic cells – an important part of the immune system.

Sleep: Getting adequate sleep is vital for proper immune function, especially if you’ve been exposed to a virus. The American Center for Disease Control recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults.

Vitamin D: Get outside! Deficiencies in vitamin D can lead to a weak immune system. You can also buy vitamin D supplements from your local grocery store or pharmacy.

Minimizing Stress: Several studies have shown that psychological stress can be an important factor for contracting a cold. It’s important to note that stress is not the cause of all colds. Rather, people under chronic or severe stress are more likely to catch a sickness when exposed to a virus than people who are under milder stress.

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What to do When Sick

So, what happens if you were diligent about washing hands, eating right, and getting enough sleep, but still come down with the cold or flu? Is it okay to exercise?

  • Mild to moderate exercise is typically okay if you have a common cold and no fever. In fact, exercise can even help open nasal passages or temporarily relieve congestion.
  • In my personal experience, I found that light exercise around 50% of my Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for 30-45 minutes was helpful.
  • As a rule of thumb, if the symptoms are all “above the neck” then exercise is okay. These symptoms are quite common with a cold, such as a runny nose or nasal congestion.
  • However, avoid exercise if the symptoms are “below the neck”, such as chest congestion, hacking cough, or an upset stomach. You should also consider full rest if you have a fever, fatigue, or body aches.

Ultimately, you should listen to your body. If you’re feeling miserable, take a break. If you use some form of readiness app (Whoop, HRV4Training, EliteHRV, etc.), take advantage of the readiness score. Spend the time that you’d typically spent training to get some additional rest – sleep in, go to bed early, etc.

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Returning to Training

As you gradually recover and start to feel better, you can resume your usual training. Once you are back on the bike, avoid the temptation to hammer hard intervals or join virtual races to make up for lost training. It can take up to a week for your body to fully recover, even from relatively minor illnesses. Remember that it’s better to lose some fitness but return to full health than to continue training and prolong sickness.

That’s all for this month! Stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you next month!

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