Feeling disappointed and robbed after having to bail on the Ironman 70.3 Durban 2017 due to illness, veteran triathlete Frank Smuts investigates exactly why training, or competing in races while you’ve got a head cold or the flu is such a bad idea.
When a cold or flu virus invades the body, the first question every athlete asks is: “Should I, or shouldn’t I train?” If you haven’t fought that mental battle yet, you will eventually – it’s a dilemma every athlete has to face at some stage in their sporting lives. Here’s the thing, though: Training or racing with a viral infection can have dire consequences for your health. During the Ironman 70.3 East London 2014, two athletes died during the swim, and not because of drowning. However, they did have one thing in common; both of them had been ill during the period leading up to race day.
Fast forward to Ironman 70.3 Durban 2017. After three months of tough winter training and a good few thousands of rand later, I got a sore throat and the sniffles just three days before race day. But here I was, sitting on the plane, flying fast and furiously to Durban with all the hopes of making the podium for a third consecutive time and maybe qualifying for the world champs. I was devastated; nothing can ruin an athlete’s goals more than a sudden, unexpected illness. The very question facing me was: should I take the chance and race, or am I playing with my life?
The three levels under attack: Health, fitness, mental well-being
Illness has a simultaneous impact on an athlete’s life in terms of their health, fitness and mental well-being, which doesn’t help. As a consequence, dealing with the question of whether you should train or race while ill can easily become a see-saw ride of “yes versus no”, then back again. This is perfectly normal. As athletes, we all want to achieve our goals. As much as our heads might acknowledge the facts that warrant a categoric “No” answer, our hearts will always try and convince us to push through regardless to achieve our goal.
Unfortunately, a virus has a lifespan of its own and doesn’t give two hoots for your training or racing calendar. And, despite all the modern remedies available to us, once it’s invaded your system, you can expect severe symptoms to last for 4 to 5 days. That said, it still takes anything from 10 to 14 days for your body to be completely free of the virus – so the best way to control your illness is to take a holistic approach by getting a handle on all three aspects of your life that are under fire.
When dealing with a head cold or flu, it’s vitally important to determine which one you have in your system. Sure, you can take the chance and train with a viral condition and get away with little or no consequence. But don’t fool yourself, it still remains a risk and can definitely leave you unable to train ever again or, at worst, even kill you.
The general consensus is that anything above the neck is okay for training. And, of course, the view that anything below the neck means no training, is also accepted as true. However, a recent Australian study reported that the relationship between heart attacks and the common head cold may have been totally underestimated. Lead author Dr Lorcan Ruane, who conducted the work at the University of Sydney said: “For those participants who reported milder upper respiratory tract infection symptoms the risk increase was less, but was still elevated by 13 fold. Although upper respiratory infections are less severe, they are far more common than lower respiratory tract symptoms. Therefore it is important to understand their relationship to the risk of heart attacks, particularly as we are coming into winter in Australia.”
Of course, for you and me, the best and correct way to go about things is to consult a doctor. Then accept the situation for what it is, take the professional advice to heart and act responsibly instead of trying to wish it all away.
Common head colds
Colds are mostly rhinovirus infections, causing symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing, coughing, sore throats and the mild swelling of certain glands. They normally last about a week, but when they stick around for longer it could indicate a complication, such as bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. Interestingly, sometimes allergy symptoms can closely mimic those of a head cold. So if you suspect that’s the case, try to have it confirmed – because then you’re safe and can continue to train as usual. You might want to determine the cause of the allergy, though.
Once you’ve diagnosed it as a cold, and the symptoms are not entirely debilitating, the best approach would be to do a short training session of about 10 to 15 minutes at a low intensity. Monitor your heart rate so you stay within zone 1 or zone 2. If you feel fine afterwards, sleep on it, literally, and extend the session the next day to 30 minutes, still at low intensity. After day two of monitored training, you will know whether you are on the mend or not. If you still feel rough, take it as a sign to back off. The difficult part of listening to your body comes into play here. Rest again for a few days, even for a week before training again if your symptoms get any worse.
Don’t mess with the flu
Now we get to the dangerous version called influenza, or as we know it, the flu. Some, or most of the symptoms of flu are similar to those of a head cold, but they also include serious systemic effects like stiff and aching muscles, bones and joints, headaches and, most importantly, overall bodily weakness. A fever is also part of the package in many cases. If you detect a fever, training of any kind right away becomes a definite no-no.
The worse case scenario associated with intense activity while having the flu, is what’s commonly described as the virus attacking your heart. The medical term for it is Myocarditis. Myocarditis occurs when the middle layer of your heart wall becomes inflamed. Actually, what happens is the T-cells produced to attack the virus, mistakenly turn on your own system and inflame your heart. At best, Myocarditis can leave you weak for months – with symptoms contributing to a condition broadly described as post-viral fatigue. A more severe form of Myocarditis will render you unfit for any training for the rest of your life, as the heart contracts irreversible damage. The worst form of Myocarditis will stop your heart and even kill you. Chest pains or irregular heart rhythms are clear indications that your heart’s possibly showing signs of the onset of Myocarditis.
Bottom line: When you know you have the flu, stay away from training for as long as is necessary. If you’re unsure for how long, get a medical opinion and stick to doctor’s orders. You may even have to abstain from training for 14 days or more. Get your head to accept that. More about that when we get to the mental bit.
The next aspect to get a handle on is the effect the illness will have on your athletic fitness. Many studies have shown the loss of endurance fitness becomes apparent after between 7 to 14 days of inactivity. The good news is many studies have also shown that the time it takes to regain your fitness is always less than the time of your forced rest. In fact, it’s common for athletes to express genuine surprise at how quickly they regained their fitness. The bottom line is that, unless the illness worsens due to mistreatment – for instance, like resuming training too soon – the burn-out period of the virus should be short enough for you to retain most of your fitness without any problems.
You might experience a slightly higher heart rate than normal in the first week of training, especially if you push hard to see if you are still up to your previous level of fitness. Don’t overcook it. Work at 70-percent maximum heart rate for the first week. In many instances athletes undergoing forced rest come back in a better physical condition, as niggles and other underlying injuries get a proper chance to heal.
The psychological impact of getting sick is often as much of an upsetting factor as the actual illness itself. Getting your training interrupted or, even worse, missing out on a goal race can be a real downer. In my case I had to sit out on a goal race, the Ironman 70.3 Durban, in which I’d invested months of training and quite a few thousand rands in. Going from hero to zero within a day, courtesy of a bug that the eye can’t even see can be very demoralising and ego-crushing. But while the consequences of a cold and the flu can be harmful if treated incorrectly, when you view the bigger picture it’s really just a blip on the radar in terms of your general fitness. In my case, I missed out on a major goal race, a possible podium and world championships qualification, but I had to say to myself: “Nobody died” – and that introduces another handle on your illness, the psychological or mental part.
If you take all of the above information to heart, two principles become evident. First: Cold or flu viruses need to be respected and treated correctly, otherwise you can fall victim to irreversible health consequences. People have died because they trained or raced while infected with a virus. Second: You need to keep in mind that, in most cases, the road back to fitness is always shorter than the time you spent out of action.
If you find yourself struggling mentally, try to rationalise your situation positively by making it part of a bigger, more important picture. Remember, you can always race next week, next month, or next year. And that’s a darn sight better than never being able to race again. If need be, go as far as telling yourself things like you’re not that special, this happens to lots of athletes, and you’re not the first one and you won’t be the last, either. And, if you convince yourself that everything happens for a reason, your time spent convalescing becomes even easier. So find that reason – it can be reading a good book, catching up on work, spending more time with the family, sort out your garage, or dealing with any other aspect of your life that’s suffered because of all your training! Your enforced lay-off doesn’t need to be time wasted.
Sickness is not part of anything we plan for. I’m still annoyed about missing out on Ironman 70.3 Durban, but I definitely learned how fragile and fallible the human body can be. I was so ill I couldn’t even walk the distance from my hotel to the registration venue. It was very humbling, but thankfully I am healthy again, so it’s upwards and onwards to the next race. Until next time, look after your health!
Please note: This article attempts to give broad advice only and should not be considered medical advice. If you experience any respiratory symptoms you suspect to be of a viral nature, consult with a medical professional. – (c) 2017 NavWorld