How To Return To Training After Illness

Last month my training was entirely lost to the lurgy. My respiratory system was hit so breathing was a challenge. I coughed so much my diaphragm hurt and I was so lacking in energy that just keeping the basics of life going was enough. Had I attempted to train during that time my immune system would have been even more severely challenged and my health further compromised. (Not that health was something I thought I had at the time!)

My decision last month was to not train. My next ‘A’ competition is May so a break in December for a few weeks was a sensible choice. Normally I keep ticking over with training at a lower level at that time but stopping entirely was the sensible choice this year. My only activity was daily dog walks and very restorative and gentle yoga. Even these were of minimal duration and dog walks absolutely didn’t include cough-inducing hills.

The Christmas and New Year break allowed for rest and healing. Each day the dog walk became a little longer. The track to Little Mis Tor (pictured here) became a gentle introduction to increasing intensity. On the first day of walking there I had turned back long before reaching the top as my body was so weary and my coughing so violent. A week or so later when I could reach the top without coughing I knew I was ready to begin working towards proper training again.

I didn’t rush in with a full week of training. Since I had been fairly inactive for a few weeks I began by increasing my yoga practice to include a stronger and more sustained practice. This allowed me to lengthen all the muscles which had tightened whilst ill, to restore efficient movement patterns throughout my body, and restore muscular strength and condition throughout. I then added a couple of trail runs, without wearing my Polar. It was about the joy of moving rather than measuring my performance. The runs felt comfortable enough so I added in a few hours of tennis and an MTB ride over the weekend.

This week I begin a full training week working through my principles of healthy return to training after illness. My principles are:

  1. Rest for as long as you need. Your body will lose more fitness from prolonging illness due to not resting than it will from resting fully and returning only when ready.
  2. Recondition the body before adding intensity. Inactivity causes muscle tightening and muscular atrophy. This can be easily restored but easy to forget in the rush to return to doing what you were doing before illness. Take the time to spend a few days building back strength, stretching tight muscles, and ensuring that your body is moving with good alignment and movement patterns before you return fully to training to avoid risk of injury.
  3. Start your return with a light week of all the activities you enjoy. This is not training and doesn’t need to include your training activities. Don’t worry about performance. Just enjoy being able to move again. Measure your performance by comfort and the pleasure of being able to be active.
  4. Use the first week back as a ‘benchmark’ and accept whatever it is. Return to your training plan and its full range of activities but keep the intensity or duration at a lower level than it was before your illness. Don’t agonise about being slower or weaker. Accept what it is and trust that your fitness will return.
  5. Build intensity, duration, frequency and type of training gradually. Your immune system will still be lowered so avoid doing too much too quickly. Use the next few weeks to add an appropriate increase in intensity but with awareness of how your body responds. You may need to repeat a week if you are not ready for the next increase.
  6. Reflect on what caused you to be ill and learn from that to not repeat. When you body is really hit hard by an illness it is often due to stress, whether physical or psychological. Reflect on your lifestyle, your work, your diet, your training to consider what you could do to improve your immune function to avoid a repeat illness.

For the record, this week’s training is planned to be:

  • Monday – rest day
  • Tuesday – 1000m swim
  • Wednesday – 30 minute MAF run
  • Thursday – 60 minute road bike ride on rolling hills
  • Friday – 1500m swim
  • Saturday – 75 minute mountain bike ride with intervals
  • Sunday – 35 minute run

Plus of course plenty of yoga, daily dog walks, and the activity involved in some days of cycle coaching delivery.

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