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Tell Me Tuesday: When Illness Strikes while Training

If you look like this while reading this post, 1. No running for you; 2. Consider a cordless phone, retro-mama!

I’ll admit: I sometimes struggle to find a topic to write about for this column. But—wait, pardon me while I blow my nose for the, oh, 177th time in the past three hours—I didn’t have that problem today. As I go on two weeks of being sick (a cold that morphed into a nasty sinus infection complete with a fever), the answer was clear: how to deal with being sick while training for a race. An innocent stuffy nose made its debut 10 days into my Boston Marathon prep. (I’m using a training plan from the upcoming Train Like a Mother. Something tells me I’ll be blogging a bit more about it in the upcoming months….) In typical mom-fashion, I blew my nose, ignored the post-nasal-drip sore throat, wrapped some presents, and soldiered on.

It wasn’t until five days later, when my friend/running buddy Molly commented, “you sound really sick,” did I pause to give my sneezing and sniffling any real consideration. Yet it wasn’t until my head felt ready to explode like an angry blood blister did I call the doctor. A 101-degree fever that afternoon confirmed it: sinus infection. Doc hooked me up with antibiotics, and I mentally urged them to work their magic quickly.

The following day was already a rest day, so that did away with any debate. But the day after that (last Friday), I was signed up for boot camp, which meant I’d already ponied up the dough for it. I went to bed feeling significantly better, with my gym shorts, tank top, and cross-training sneaks laid out. But when I got up to pee in the middle of the night, I heard the voice of reason (a.k.a. my wise running buddy Ellison, a two-time vet of Boston) in my head. She “reminded” me that running needed to be my focus these next few months; to be strong enough to take on the prescribed 15-mile run on Saturday, I needed to skip Friday boot camp. So I switched off my alarm, letting myself sleep in later than I have in nearly a decade. (Wow, what a coincidence: Our older daughter turns 10 next week!)

Let me stop blathering my saga now, and turn to some tips for other sickies. (And given a mom’s exposure to germs, we all know it’s just a matter of time until your number is called….)

-If all your symptoms are above your neck, such as a runny nose, sore throat, and perhaps a cough, you can still exercise if you feel like it.  Think of it as a Blowing Snot Rockets 101 session. (I ran a fine-enough 14 miles on Day 4 of my recent malady.)

-If your symptoms exist lower down, chest congestion or an uneasy GI, for instance, or you have a fever, no exercising until you feel better.

-If you have to take an antibiotic, tell your doc you’re a runner training for a race. I’m going to admit: Dimity imparts this tidbit of wisdom in Train Like a Mother, yet I forgot it when I was at my M.D.’s office. Turns out some antibiotics can leave a runner more vulnerable to tendon problems.

I picked up this image from the web: You don't want to view my used tissues. Trust me on this one.

-A question we get a lot on our Facebook page is where to pick up a training plan if a runner misses days due to illness. If you’re out for a few days with something simple, resume on the current day. (As in, if you are sick Tuesday through Thursday, do Friday’s workout on Friday.) Do not, I repeat N-O-T, try to make up lost miles, as you might push yourself deeper into illness. You can re-jigger the days on your training plan—maybe do a modified long run on Sunday instead of Saturday to give yourself an extra day to recoup. (Real life example: This past weekend, the plan called for running 15 miles with middle 5 at race pace. I did the 15, but left my Garmin at home. Pace be damned, no pushing it for me. I also carried my iPhone with me in case I needed to bail midway.)

-If your illness forces you to miss a week or more of running, re-evaluate your race. If the race is a long ways off, your course can right itself. But if you’re six or four weeks away, you might need to re-think running the event. It depends on what your goal is: If crossing the finish line with a smile is your aim, then you’re probably fine. But missing a week or more of prime PR training can be tough to recoup from, and you might want to choose another race.

-Expect it to take at least a few days, maybe even a week or 10 days, before you feel like your old self. Which means I’m letting myself off the hook for this morning’s tempo pace being about 30 seconds slower than usual.

What do you do when you get sick while training for a race?


20 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: When Illness Strikes while Training

  1. Test it out…I’m getting over a month-long bout with bronchitis (I admit it, I didn’t go to the doctor as soon as I should have)…I try to hop on the treadmill and see if I can jog a mile or two. If it’s too much, I stick with walking for another week or so. The 13 degree weather outside today is no good, so I’m going to try another indoor run this afternoon. First day off of all medication, so we’ll see how it goes!

  2. Very complex question. I have taken it easy and it seems like it drags on forever. I don’t stress about missing a week of training–my body is in shape after all. What makes me wonder is if drinking extra fluids and sweating helps flush out the cold virus? I wish I could afford a sauna because I’d have one.

  3. First, I cry, then I obsessively review, revise my training plan, and finally and reluctantly listen to my body and rest as much as I needed to. What keeps me from running while sick is the fear of jeopardizing my health for just one race when there are so many other races out there. Feel better soon, SBS! Hang in there!

  4. My three year old was taken down by a nasty stomach virus last week. So bad that she in fact was hospitalized so that they could give her anti-nausea meds and re-hydrate her. She was majorly dehydrated when she was admitted. Well, me being the loving and sharing mother that I am took care of the little squirt and then proceeded to get sick as well. Thankfully mine only last 24 hours followed by 48 hours of body aches. And thank goodness the race I am training for is only a 15k which I can already run eight of the nine point three miles. But I truly appreciate the advice above.

  5. THANK YOU! On Saturday 1-7-12 I will run my first half marathon at Disney. I came down with a head cold on Thursday 12-28 and flying down was unbearable (who knew that your head won’t actually explode upon descent). Well it’s now Tuesday and went to urgent care and got the antibotics. I’ll be checking tomorrow on that info. But everyone’s advice about the “above the neck” has saved me a WHOLE lot of worry. So thank you so much.

  6. Knock on wood, I haven’t had too many sick days while training for a race. But this past November, the week of the Philadelphia Marathon, my whole family came down with the stomach bug. Then my running and race partner came down with it the next day. She had it much worse than me and my family. But it was a true learning experience because the day of the race we felt fine. Part way thru, we split up where she finished the half after getting sick and I continued on with the marathon.
    A few miles later, I started to cramp up and had a horrible race. It is amazing how you think you are fine to run it after all of the training but your body had other ideas!

  7. I can take a few days off, but after that and I’m still feeling awful, it’s time to step up the vitamin C and broth, get out there and MOVE! When we all have that crud in our head, it’s an awful feeling and so hard to shake it and get back into the routine 🙁

  8. I got sick the week of the New Years Double. A half marathon on New Years Eve and then another half marathon on New Years Day. I slept and laid around and did everything I could to get well enough to make it to the start line. Then I threw all my goals out the window. I didn’t even start my watch in the races. They were my slowest half marathons ever, but damn it I got my medals!

  9. First off, as one anal-retentive runner to another I must say, “Good job, Sarah!” So glad you took the smart route.

    Secondly, three weeks before my second Boston I had my last 20-miler before the Big Day planned. The night before I spent several hours paying homage to the porcelain god. Sick.As.A.Dog. So no running for me and even two days later I was weak. Instead of pushing it I went returned to my regular schedule the third day; didn’t try to make up the 20 the following Sunday; and ended up shaving two minutes off my previous race time.

    I’m a huge believer of listening to and respecting your body.

  10. Up vitamin c, take zinc, drink much MORE green tea and rest as much as possible. Seriously, because I know I will train during most illnesses, if I really feel like I need time off I don’t beat myself up over it. Having something serious like bronchitis or pnemonia (sp) would sideline me much longer.

  11. Honestly the above the neck thing/ below the neck thing is brilliant. Somehow I have never heard it split up that way but it makes complete sense.

    I find it is really helpful (when my family is sick and I am not yet) to start upping the Vit. C (I love emergenC) and doing sinus flushes or using a gentle nasal spray, drink lots of Yogi Teas and get to bed early!

  12. I try to follow your rules…it can be so hard to let go sometimes! I’ve been running with a mild GI virus, but it’s not too bad. I just try to pick up where I left off in training, but will sometimes move a long weekend run to a Monday rest day so I don’t totally miss it. Now if my husband would only follow your words of wisdom!

  13. If it’s a cold thing, my rule is..if it’s above the neck still soon as it moves to my chest..i’m done. And it may be weeks unfortunately. I was on my way to the pool thinking..”I’ve been lucky and not got sick yet”…keeping my fingers crossed..get well!

  14. I push up my vitamin c dose to 1500mg at the first sign of an errant sniffle, drink more water and cut back in any tempo or sprint training. Other than that, I try to run through it at an eas pace until those above the neck symptoms subside. Happy running!

  15. I had no idea about the antibiotic/tendonitis connection! I have been on and off antibiotic (mostly on) for over eight months due to a recurrent sinus infection…and my MD knows I run (knew I was prepping for and ran NYC ING in November) and never mentioned anything!! Thanks so much for the information.

    1. Avelox is a brand name known to make a person vulnerable to achilles tears. There may be others, but this one should be a red flag to a runner.

  16. I can take normally two-three days off, but if by the 4th I’m still feeling weak I try to do something, even a light jog. And that makes me feel so much better. Obviously I’d recommend this if the symptoms are all above the neck.

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