From ill to well – without the hell

Mar 10, 2020

Most runners can’t do without their running ‘fix’.  When illness intervenes, some runners carry on exercising, some continue exercising at a lower intensity and some stop exercising completely.  What is the correct thing to do?

I will break this article into 3 parts:

  1. When not to exercise if you are ill
  2. What to do to get better quicker so you can return to your exercise routine
  3. How and when to restart your exercise programme

Runner who is sick

1. When not to exercise if you are ill

There is a saying that if the illness is above the neck (a cold for example) it is fine to exercise, but if below the neck (a chest infection) you need to rest. It’s not that easy!

Remember, mild to moderate exercise will improve your immune system, where intense exercise can actually lower your immune system.  Both exercise and illness put your body under stress (physically and mentally), so it may be worth halting your exercise routine, even if you are not that ill, to allow yourself to get better sooner.

Definite no-no’s to exercising are:

  1. If you have a fever
  2. Myalgias (muscle aches)
  3. A chest infection
  4. Under the advice of a health care practitioner

1. A fever can cause tachycardia at rest (increased heart rate). Exercise will then elevate the heart rate even more, which could be dangerous. Many runners know their own morning resting heart rates.  If it is higher than normal, you can suspect that an infection is starting.

2. Muscle aches often occur with a fever. The muscle becomes inflamed. Skeletal (body) muscles are a striated muscle where heart muscles are a smooth muscle.  Although they are different types of muscles, one would not want to inflame the heart muscle by doing exercise as damage to the heart muscle can cause cardiac (heart) failure.

3. Chest infections tend to congest the lungs. Blood needs to flow through the lungs which will make it more difficult for the heart to circulate this blood (the heart has to work harder) and oxygen needs to get to the bloodstream via the airways. If they are congested, less oxygen will go to the brain, heart and body muscle.

4. If a health care practitioner has advised you not to exercise, please heed those instructions.

If you have a mild cold, ‘runny’ or blocked nose, mild exercise may decongest the nose quicker by elevating your body temperature and the vibration from running may loosen the mucous.

If you are too sick to get out of the bed, or go to work, you are too sick to exercise!

If you are unsure, rather play it safe and stop exercising.

2. What to do to get better quicker so you can return to your exercise routine

To get back to exercise as soon as possible, the following tips may help you accomplish this:

  • Try and rest as much as possible to get your body’s immune system to help fight the infection
  • Eat and drink enough fluids to give your body strength
  • Sleep enough to mentally strengthen you
  • If you are on medication, take them as prescribed
  • Take some time off work to rest and speed up your recovery
  • Try not to get too irritated and uptight because you are not exercising

3. How and when to restart your exercise programme

When to restart exercising depends on your illness:

  • With mild viral infections (colds), you can restart exercising after 3 – 5 days.
  • In more severe viral infections (influenza), you can restart exercising after 7 – 10 days.
  • Other infections, depending on what the illness is, may need you to be off exercise for longer.  Ask your doctor about that specific illness and when you can return to exercise again.
  • Some medications that the doctor may prescribe (not the illness) may also not allow you to exercise (for example some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication).  Again, ask your doctor about the medication and exercising with it.
  • If you still have a fever, or muscle aches and pains or an elevated heart rate, you must not start exercising just yet.

When restarting exercise again remember:

  • Start slowly as your body will be weaker. If you push it too hard, you will get sick again. Go at a slower pace and exercise for less time than before you were sick.
  • Keep hydration levels up.
  • Let your body tell you how much to exercise after being ill.
  • If you tire quickly, cut back on your exercise regime slightly.

We are all human.

You WILL at times get ill, you WILL need to stop exercising for a short while. Just accept that.  You WILL get over it!

Detlev Venter

Detlev is a GP in private practice and an avid runner himself. His practice is based in Jukskei Park in Johannesburg.

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