The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Every athlete during their career has experienced the frustration of illness which often temporarily derails their training. Many times the length of time off is determined by the severity of the illness and the rate of recovery, however, there are many athletes that claim that they’ve pushed through and trained while sick. Training while sick and ignoring symptoms of illness may increase the risk of overtraining, dehydration, physical injury and chronic health problems.

How do you know if you should continue training?

  • Generally, if symptoms are “above the neck” such as a common cold, training may continue
  • Common colds still have an adverse effect on the immune system, so if training continues it’s still a good idea to decrease the frequency, length, and intensity of workouts until recovered
  • Training should cease if an athlete has an elevated temperature, aches, chills, lung congestion, or an upset stomach
  • If you aren’t sure if you should continue or return to exercise, consult a physician

Training while sick puts the body under the stresses of trying to recover from a training load as well as the stresses of trying to fight an illness. As a result, the immune system can be compromised and there is a chance it could lead to a worsening of symptoms.

Once an athlete is on their way to recovery, it’s important to start slow*:

  • Start with indoor workouts so it’s easy to stop and rest when needed
  • Gradually increase the frequency of workouts
  • Following with increasing the duration of individual training sessions
  • The final step is to up the intensity of the workout
  • Each athlete is different so the time will vary for each individual regarding a full return to training

Every athlete should be encouraged to monitor their training performance and well-being carefully after returning from illness to ensure their complete recovery. For those who struggle with taking time off of training, a lost day here and there is not the end of the world. Considering the risks involved with pushing your body through illness and training, you may end up losing more time if your sickness gets worse.

*If symptoms reoccur, it is recommended that an athlete contact a physician immediately to avoid further complications.

References from the SIRC Collection: 

1. 5 WAYS TO FEND OFF GERMS. Runner’s World (Australia & New Zealand). May 2009;11(10):15.
2. Avoiding illness: catching a winter bug will interrupt your carefully prepared winter training programme. Here’s how to minimise the risk of getting ill. Cycling Weekly. December 13, 2003;(5794):38-39.
3. Burrell S. Getting Through the Tough Winter Months. Bicycling Australia. May 2008;(151):88-89.
4. How to Ward Off Winter Colds. Sports Medicine Bulletin. November 24, 2009;:9.
5. Nelson L. Training: training while sick. Skitrax. December 2002;13(2):64.
6. Nieman D. Can Too Much Exercise Make Athletes Sick?. BC Coach’s Perspective. Winter 2005;(9):5. 7. Randy E. Is it ok to exercise when you’re sick?. Running Research News. November 1995;11(9):12. 
8. Terbizan D, Czeh C. Illness in winter competition athletes. Nebraska Journal For Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Fall 1995;26(2):18-20.