Friday, April 27, 2012

RECOVERY: 5 Tips for Getting Back on the Workout Wagon After an Illness

With spring here and the winter cold and flu season over, you may think you're out of the woods when it comes to contracting some nasty illness.  Think again.  You never know when some evil cooties are lurking on the next door knob or when someone is going to sneeze on you in a confined area.  

Ranking a close second behind my self-proclaimed Calf Injury of 2011 is now my Upper Respiratory Infection/Pneumonia/Bronchitis Crud of 2012.  After a month of getting back on the workout wagon, I was knocked off again for more than three weeks...And I felt like the wagon ran right over me in the process.

I'm now working my way back to having some form of aerobic capacity and muscle strength, but it's a slow process.  Most of us athletes are Type A and we not only demand, but also expect a lot from our bodies.  So we're not always the best at easing ourselves back into workouts after an injury or illness.  As I've come to learn, however, pushing yourself too hard too fast can leave you hanging off the wagon clinging to the horse's reigns hoping you don't get trampled...

As I attempt to re-jigger my workout schedule and start from square one, I'd like to share my tips for easing back into a workout schedule when you've been struck by an illness:

1.  Listen to your body:  Sounds easy enough, but sometimes our desire to get back into the swing of things outweighs what our body is telling us it wants to do.  When you've been injured or sick for a period of time, any improvement feels wonderful.  Then you start thinking maybe you can go for a "little" walk or run.  But what your mind fails to recognize is that your body - while improved - isn't 100%.  In fact, with a serious injury or illness, it won't be 100% for awhile.  So really listen to what your body is telling you. If it's tired, rest.  Don't force yourself back into physical activity until your body is as sure as your mind is.  Once you do start working out, pay attention to these signs to see if you pushing harder than your body can handle:

  • you're short of breath
  • your heart rate is too high
  • you can't maintain your normal pace
  • you get tired sooner than normal
  • your body feels weak
  • your just not having fun 

2.  Respect what the illness has done to your body:  The general rule of thumb is that if your illness is from the neck up (like a cold), it's o.k. to continue working out if you're feeling up to it.  If your illness is from the neck down (like pneumonia or diarrhea), then you shouldn't work out until you're healthy.  Importantly, as long as you have a fever, you shouldn't be working out at all.   

If you have a cold, your recovery period isn't going to be as long as if you have pneumonia, bronchitis, or an upper respiratory infection.  Even when you don't feel sick anymore, your body is still fighting off your illness.  Respect the illness that you had and how hard your body fought to get better, and allow an appropriate amount of time of being totally asymptomatic before you start pushing it to workout again.  If you push too hard or too soon before your virus or bacteria is completely gone from your body, the stress of working out (which comprises your immune system as it is) can further compromise your immune system enough to make your illness come back.  My doctor recommended that I wait until I'd been totally asymptomatic (no fever, coughing, etc.) for an entire week before I started working out again.  

3.  Remember this word:  SLOW:  My doctor also said that once I was able to work out again, I needed to start out slow - specifically, by walking.  For endurance athletes, the concept of walking for a workout seems as exciting as flying a kite.  But, starting with baby steps is tremendously valuable for two reasons.  First, if you're exhausted or winded from walking, then that's the best indicator that you're not up for anything more demanding.  Second, if you've been out of the game for more than 7-10 days, your endurance will begin to decline.  When that happens, you can't just pick up where you left off.  You have to start slow and short...Re-build your base.         

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • If you've been off for less than 7 days, you're endurance isn't going to suffer and you should just pick up your training schedule where you left off.  Do not try to make up the miles you missed.
  • If you've been off for 1-2 weeks, start back at about half the mileage you were up to before your illness and increase slowly.  You should be back up to your prior mileage in 2-4 weeks.   
  • If you've been off for more than 2 weeks, you'll want to be particularly careful.  You may want to start with some cross-training and, more importantly, start with walk/runs.  Then you can gradually reduce your walking time and increase your running time.  Realistically, it's going to be more than a month before you're back up to your pre-illness mileage.  
4.  Rebuild your digestive tract after taking antibiotics:  Your digestive tract is important to your immune system because your digestive tract is one of the primary mechanisms through which your are exposed to pathogenic organisms.  Your digestive tract doesn't just digest your food - it protects you against bacteria and infections. Nearly 3/4 of your immune system lies in your digestive tract.  Your digestive tract also contains hundreds of different species of "good" bacteria, which Harvard scientists believe can influence the development of certain aspects of the immune system.  When you take an antibiotic, it destroys not only the "bad" bacteria that caused your illness, but also many of the "good" bacteria in your digestive tract.  To re-build the good bacteria in your digestive tract, you may want to take a probiotic after your course of antibiotics.  WebMD provides some tips for selecting the right probiotic for you.  

5.  Consider acupuncture to help get you back on the road:  I'm a big believer in acupuncture.  Without going into why it works, let me just say that my acupuncturist - a.k.a. Mr. Miaggi - has done wonders for me.  He's fixed injuries that plagued me for years, helped break up scar tissue caused by the Calf Injury of 2011, and, now, helped my lungs/muscles recover from the Upper Respiratory Infection/Pneumonia/Bronchitis Crud of 2012.  Once I started feeling better, I had lingering pain in my lungs/ribs and couldn't get a deep, normal breath.  So I went to see Mr. Miaggi and he explained that all the weeks of coughing had left my chest muscles in knotted up, tight, and very weak.  When those muscles are tight, they can't expand as well to get a deep breath.  After the first session with him, my chest and breath were significantly improved.  After the second session, the pain/tightness was completely gone and my breathing was back at nearly 100%.  Whatever your illness or injury, I recommend acupuncture to help your body recover.  

I hope you're all staying healthy and fit this spring!  

What tips do you have for rebounding after an illness?  



Jen said...

Great post. I found that yoga and meditation was especially helpful when trying to recover from the C-Section. I was better able to listen to my body and learn the different signals it was sending me when I spent time practicing meditation and yoga. Plus, the benefits of yoga & meditation when you are trying to heal are quite plentiful, from added focus on breathing and your core, to stress and anxiety release. I'm dealing with a little tendonitis right now and added yoga and meditation back in and wouldn't you know it? I feel better about it mentally and am losing some the stiffness and achiness from it.

I am also finding that food choices are especially important on the healing - so I was happy to see you confirm that in this post. Thanks!

Life Through Endurance said...

Hey Jen - you hit the nail on the head with yoga and meditation. Meditation in particular has been on my "to-do" list FOREVER! I know the benefits it would give, but ironically trying to find the time to meditate stresses me out! So I need to figure out how to incorporate that and I'm glad to hear that you've had such wonderful benefits! That's encouraging.
I'm sorry to hear about your tendonitis, but I'm so glad to hear that it's getting better! Keep me posted...