When discussing the fitness community, it is very common to talk about it as if it has one voice. Often, that voice is portrayed as a loud, aggressive, drill sergeant who angrily screams that there is “No quitting, no excuses, and no surrender”.
But, as with any past time that is partaken by millions and millions of people, the community will have many different opinions on when to train, and when not to train.
If you wake up with a head cold should you train through it? Avoid any form of exercise completely? Or is there a middle route? What about when you wake up sore after a workout? Can you train again immediately? Or is your body telling you to rest?
In this article we will attempt to guide you through the many confusing and conflicting beliefs out there, and deliver you what is (in our opinion) the right course of action.
We will look at what you should do if you have a short, medium, or long-term illness. What you should do when you wake up sore after a session, and what you should do when you are tired.
Please bear in mind that many people respond to illness, fatigue, DOMS etc in different ways, and that you may well be the exception to our advice.
Common Illness’s (Colds, etc)
In this case we’re talking about less serious, shorter term illnesses that are nevertheless more serious than a head cold or stomach bug. If you’ve been ill for over a week then you would classify this as a medium-term sickness.
It’s certainly not a 24-hour bug. When it comes to medium-term sicknesses, training should probably be stopped.
This may seem surprising given that our advice for long-term sickness is to train. But consider the fact that people with long-term sicknesses may not get better, and they may also have adapted to their sickness. Their condition may not improve for a while (if ever).
With a medium-term sickness, you are going to get better eventually, probably within a day or two. There is little benefit to exercising, in fact you may even infect others. Something that could be described as pretty selfish in all honesty!
Rest up, maybe do some light walking if you can manage it, and concentrate on getting better.
Often, when fitness experts are asked this question, they say that anything that affects the head (colds, headaches, sore-throats etc) are fine to train with, while chesty coughs etc are not okay to train with.
But let’s be real here.
Do you really think that missing ONE day is going to set your goals back? No, of course not. So, there aren’t really any benefits to missing the session.
But there are many potential downsides. You could be sicker than you realise, in which case going to the gym could cause you to deteriorate. You could infect other people while there (gyms are notorious for being places where people breathe heavily in cramped conditions), which is a pretty nasty thing to do.
You could suffer a dizzy spell while on a treadmill or under a barbell and cause yourself injury.
We’re not saying that you should cry off the gym every single time you sneeze twice within an hour. Don’t use the possibility of being sick as an excuse to never exercise. But, if you know that you are ill stay away from the gym. There are no real benefits to going, and plenty of potential drawbacks.
Long Term Sickness
You might be surprised to find out that exercise, whether it be resistance exercise, cardiovascular exercise, or a combination of the two, is often recommended to people suffering from serious long-term illnesses.
While it rarely helps to cure the illness, it can help to reduce some of the side-effects. For example, cancer patients may find that physical exercise can help reduce chronic fatigue, pain, or other nasty effects of their illness.
Of course, this all depends on what illness you have, and you should always follow the advice of a medical professional. But, more often than not they will recommend training as a great way to feel better.
Start slow, and build up the intensity over a long period of time. Make sure that your rest and recovery from exercise are at a high level too.
DOMS and Soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the scientific term for that “day after leg day” feeling you get. Not the light soreness that lets you know you trained hard, we’re talking about the type of incapacity which leaves you unable to sit on a toilet seat without crying for three days after a workout.
When you are suffering from DOMS the idea of training is pretty laughable. If you can’t walk down the stairs without the assistance of two trusted friends, how can you possibly exercise?
Well, there are two schools of thought here. Some people say that light exercise can actually help improve recovery. By recreating the movements that caused DOMS (but with much lighter weights) you can get blood pumping back into the muscles, and reduce swelling and inflammation.
Others say that no amount of exercise will help reduce/prevent DOMS, instead you should concentrate on rest and recovery.
Remember, that for most people DOMS is only something you need to worry about during the first couple weeks of training. Once you’re in a routine, you’ll only experience DOMS if you train much harder than usual.
In this case, taking a day off from training is probably for the best. DOMS can also be a sign of overtraining so there is even more reason to rest.
If you’re just starting out, then the benefits of establishing a routine may outweigh the increased pain. Try going to the gym, even if you’re just there to walk on a treadmill or train the muscles that aren’t currently hurting. Many people avoid the gym after their first day due to DOMS but then never make it back again!
Too Tired to Train?
If you’re tired due to a bad night’s sleep then consider taking some caffeine (caffeine pills or a black coffee are great options) about 20-30 minutes before a session. This will reduce your fatigue and allow you to train at the same level as normal – this doesn’t work if you have built a tolerance to caffeine after years of 12 coffees per day by the way.
If you are chronically tired then this can be a sign that you are overtraining. You are either exercising too often, exercising too intensely, or you are not recovering properly from training.
If this is the case then taking a week off from your usual routine may be a great move. You don’t have to avoid exercise completely, just lower the volume. Maybe try some different forms of exercise – go for long walks, play some sport (leisurely), or try a yoga class.
The week off from high-intensity exercise will help recharge your batteries, but it will also help you establish whether your program is too intense for you.