Fall is here and winter is on its way, which mean cold and flu season is upon us. Despite your best efforts to live a healthy lifestyle, chances are you will come down with at least a cold, especially as the holiday season approaches and you are around more people (and more germs) at parties and family gatherings. While moderate exercise has been correlated with a lower risk of getting sick, hard training can temporarily compromise your immunity. So if you are exposed to a virus or illness-causing bacteria within a short window after completing a hard workout, you are more susceptible to falling ill. This window can last between 3-72 hours, after an initial period of increased immunity. The length of this window of weakened immunity is dependent on the intensity and duration of activity, as well as other individual factors.
There are few things that are worse than being sick, especially when you are in the midst of training and an illness means you will miss some training sessions. But no need to panic, with a little rest and some home remedies you will be feeling good as new in no time. Here is what you need to know to survive when you get sick.
Most of the common colds and upper respiratory infections are viral, same with most gastrointestinal illness. This is both good and bad news. The good news, you won’t need antibiotics which can disrupt the balance of your delicate microbiome, and possibly lead to bacterial resistance. The bad news, you have to let the virus run its course. But there are things you can do to speed up your recovery.
First of all, listen to your body. If you are not feeling well, it is a sign that your body needs a little bit of extra rest. While unplanned rest days can be anxiety provoking, it is better to take a day or two off now instead of training through which can potentially worsen the illness and prolong the time to a full recovery. If you continue training at a significant volume and intensity while you are sick, you are diverting energy away from your body’s healing process, and while you might feel less stressed because you did not miss a workout, you are going to delay your recovery to full health. Also, you could make yourself more susceptible to picking up a secondary infection with an already rundown immune system. There is nothing worse than getting sick on top of already being sick.
When deciding whether or not to train use the rule of thumb of above vs. below the neck. If your symptoms are limited to above the neck, i.e. runny nose and sneezing, you can keep on training. Symptoms below the neck, i.e. chest congestion, bronchitis, body aches, indicate it is imperative to take time off. It is safe to return to activity the day after you are feeling better if you have a cold or other mild illness. The true flu, or a flu-like illness accompanied with high fevers, require a few extra days of downtime before resuming activity.
When getting back to training, start with a few easy days, and be sure to end the workout session while you still feel good, as your body is continuing to heal. It could take a week or more to feel like you are back to 100%, so be patient and do not panic, as it takes 7-10 days to lose measurable amounts of fitness.
While you are sick make sure you get plenty of rest. Sleep in on those days off from training and consider a nap in lieu of that afternoon training session. Getting sufficient sleep is important in prevention and recovery from illness.
It is important to stay hydrated and to up your intake of fluids while you are sick. Water or beverages with little to no added sugars are your best bet. Excess sugar can blunt a good immune response. Along those lines, you want to eat healthy and nutrient rich foods when you are sick so you are fueling your body to fight off the infection.
Here are some home remedies that I employ when I come down with that dreaded illness.
- Zicam Rapid Melts-these work best when taken at the first sign of a cold, which for me is a sore throat. I swear they do help shorten my illness and totally worth the investment. The rapid melts are super easy to use, just pop in your mouth and let it dissolve, then wait 15 minutes before eating or drinking, and repeat 3-4 times a day. You should avoid taking on an empty stomach because it can cause some nausea.
- Warm Salt Water-I gargle with a cup of warm (not hot) salt water and immediately feel better. Just dissolve about a tablespoon of salt in a cup of warm water, gargle, spit, and repeat several times.
- Sinus Rinse-This thing is da bomb! I am always amazed the amount of junk that comes out of my sinuses (sorry for the TMI). This is a great thing to do for allergy suffers as well!
- Green tea-It could just be the placebo effect, but I get relief from my nasty cold symptoms when I drink green tea. Drinking green tea is a great way to stay hydrated when you are sick. I add a touch of honey for the sweetness and to help ease my sore throat.
- Apple Cider Vinegar-Apple Cider Vinegar has healing and anti-inflammatory properties. I make a concoction of unfiltered apple cider vinegar, honey, and a dash of cinnamon in hot water similar to tea. You can also add some lemon. It is soothing and helps to clear my stuffed up sinuses as well.
- Bone broth-Grandma was right about eating chicken soup when you are sick, as it does have healing and immune boosting properties. When I am sick I use homemade bone broth to make a soup loaded with all of the veggies in the fridge. I also just heat some up in a mug and sip away. I use a couple different methods to make homemade bone broth. On the stovetop, I use the carcass from a rotisserie chicken, or a collection of chicken parts with the bones (meat already used in other recipes), cover with water in a large pot, and add coarsely chopped onions, garlic, carrots, and celery, and any fresh herbs like parsley that are lying around. I turn the heat to low and let simmer for several hours. About halfway through I add some vinegar to help leech the collagen and minerals from the bones. Once finished I drain the liquid into a glass or Pyrex container (avoid using Tupperware or plastic because it is not good to heat plastic) using a strainer, let sit for a little bit to cool before refrigerating. A good bone broth will jell in the fridge, with the fat separating on the top. You can spoon the fat off if you like, though I never do as flavor follows fat. You can also make bone broth in the slow cooker when cooking an entire chicken. Just put the chicken, seasoned with some salt and pepper plus any other herbs or spices you’d like, in the slow cooker with the same veggies (chopped onion, garlic, carrot, and celery), and cook for about 4-8 hours depending on size. For more specific step-by-step instructions, I like this recipe. When finished you will have a whole chicken! Removed the chicken and strain the vegetables from the liquid as in the stovetop recipe.
The best case scenario is not getting sick at all and there are things you can do to prevent illness such as getting enough sleep, eating well, not overdoing high intensity and volume exercise, and placing an emphasis on recovery. Also wash your hands with plain old soap and water, not anti-bacterial soap which was recently banned, and avoid touching your face especially around your mouth, nose, and eyes.
What do you do to stay healthy or recover more quickly from an illness?
Here are some great infographics from YLM Sports Science about exercise and health.