Is being a sick runner worse than being a hurt one? How to come back.

Wear your favorite race shirt, sip your green tip and rest when you're sick (like I did in early Dec. 2010).

Being hurt and not being able to run is painful. But being sick is worse.

Or, at least it feels that way.

That’s because you’re capable of running when you’re sick — except for the phlegm, the cough, the headache, the fever, the snot and all of it. It’s not like you’ll turn a stress fracture into a full-blown broken bone if you run when you’re ill, right?

Wrong. (Sort of.)

You can turn a little sinus cold into a sinus infection. Which, if you still try to power through, could turn into bronchitis. And then it lingers… and lingers… and lingers. Ugh.

Runners don’t tend to think of being sick as needing to take time to get better.

When you’re hurt, you know — albeit begrudgingly — that you need to take time, often several weeks or months, to heal and then to rehab before you can get back into the swing of things. When you’re under the weather, you know that you’ll feel better soon, and you’re impatient about getting back out there before you lose any fitness.

But we need to take the time to heal — regardless of what our training schedule has written on it.

I found myself needing to take a break — thanks to a chest cold — over a week in early December. (By the way, the runners’ rule of thumb for sickness is: above the neck, keep running; below the neck, wait until you feel better.)

It was tough for me to put a halt to my planned runs. I had just started training for the Austin Half Marathon, which is held on Feb. 20, and I had to just take rest day after rest day. Thankfully I have a solid mileage base so it shouldn’t affect me much. [Jan. 21 update: It hasn’t; I’m good.]

But in the past I’ve been sick, kept running (and you’re probably not surprised; I’ve done nothing on this blog if not shown you all how stupidly stubborn I can be), and gave myself bronchitis. My doctor really chewed me out for that one.

At any rate, the good news is that if you are forced to take a rest day due to illness you can hop back into your training with some planning.

(And shhh… don’t tell the other runners, but taking a few days off could even improve your performance. I know. Madness, right? It’s true.)

As I train for my half marathon and as I ponder starting training for my half Ironman this summer, I’ve read a lot of books about fitness and training. The general structure to any training plan is that your body is equipped to handle a 10 percent bump in activity and intensity any given week — that’s why you shouldn’t just go from logging nine miles a week to 20. Overkill.

The same rule applies when you’re coming back from injury or illness. You should never just try to cram all of your missed workouts in. You should step back and adjust your training plan to what your body needs.

How does it work, exactly? The book that I think sums up how to get back to training best is The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel. Friel also discusses how to come back on his blog.

Here are Friel’s steps for coming back from missed workouts

When there is a break in training for a few days fitness is lost and you have to step back in training and begin over again…

… Here’s a quick guide to modifying your training plan when workouts are missed.

Three or Fewer Days Missed

Return to training as if nothing happened. Don’t try to make up the missed workouts. Cramming more workouts into a few days creates the potential for a breakdown and another loss of time. It’s simply not a big deal to miss a couple workouts if it happens rarely.

Four to Seven Days Missed

This may be the hardest scenario to deal with. If the lost time was due to illness, as is quite often the case, you probably really won’t be ready to return to normal training right away even if the symptoms are gone. Your body’s chemistry has probably changed which will affect your capacity for exercise. This will show up as a high heart rate and perceived exertion at common paces and power outputs. In this case you will need to treat it as more than seven days missed even though you are starting back into training again.

If the missed training was not due to illness and you are ready to get started right away you will need to make some adjustments to the plan. The first change is to consider the lost training time a rest week. This is necessary but will throw off the scheduling of training for your A race. Your training blocks will no longer be synchronized to bring you to a peak of form on the day of the race. There are a couple of ways to resolve this dilemma. The first option, if you are in the Base or Build periods, is to reduce the length of the current block by one week. If you still aren’t synchronized do the same for the following block. The second option is to reduce the Peak period from two weeks to one. Neither of these is perfect. Both are going to result in less fitness being developed. But that’s the reality of missing a week of training. You can’t have it both ways – miss several workouts and have the same fitness as if no training was missed.

Once you are ready to train again you will need to step back and make up probably two or three key workouts. Decide which were the most important ones missed given your limiters and reschedule them. This may well mean pushing other workouts farther ahead into the plan. Eventually something will have to give. You’ll either have to miss one of the culminating workouts or decide you are progressing well enough to skip or modify one of the sessions remaining in the plan. There are simply too many variables here for me to be able to tell you exactly how to handle your situation. Give it a lot of thought.

One or Two Weeks Missed

If this was due to illness and you were in the Build period, start back into training with a Base 3 training block. If you were in the Base period go back to Base 1 or even Prep period training. Stay with that until you feel normal when working out. You will know because heart rate and perceived exertion will match pace and power as they did before you got sick. If in doubt, give it another day or two.

When your training vigor returns repeat the last week of hard training you did before the interruption. If that week goes well then begin moving forward with your training from that point. If it doesn’t go well repeat that week again. At some point you will need to leave out one to three weeks, or even more, of planned training. That could mean omitting Build 2 and/or the first week of the Peak period.

More Than Two Weeks Missed

If you were in the Build period when this training pause happened then return to Base 3 and start over again from there. If you already were in the Base period then back up one block from where you left off. As with the previous scenarios you will have to leave out some significant portion of your plan. The priority for omissions is the first week of Peak, Build 2 and Build 1 in that order.

If any of your training time was lost in the last week of Build 2 or the Peak period continue on with your training as if nothing happened. But as with all of these scenarios if the lost time was due to illness be conservative with intensity as you start back opting to train primarily in zones 1 and 2 until you are back to normal.

Now, good luck. Get healthy. And get back to work!

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