Training through illness…

image of poorly looking bandaged teddy bearSo today I was intending to complete day 5 in my 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge, but I have decided not to train. I'd be training through illness. As frustrating as that might be, I'm 99% sure its the right decision. I'm not sure its ever that easy to make the decision when you are motivated, even when you know its the right one. So instead of my training session, I'm going to pen this blog and talk you through my thoughts on training through illness. I hope that it will be of some use to others facing a similar decisions in the future.

What happened?

On Friday evening while coaching, I noticed I had a slightly itchy throat. Nothing uncomfortable, but just noticed it was slightly harder to swallow. I had a ride planned the next morning and at this stage thought, 'I'll probably be ok if it doesn't get much worse'. Sadly, at about 2am woke with what I'd describe as a noticeably sore throat and found it difficult to get back to sleep. I was grumpy to have my sleep disturbed, but was then a victim of my own vagueness. How much is '...much worse'.  It's a real grey area and I think always is.

I was up at 6 and didn't want to let my ride partner down, but my throat was no better. I've had sore throats like this before and on occasion, the infection has really taken hold and its wiped me out.  That said,  after some breakfast and a coffee, the discomfort lessened and as it was not a 'hard' ride planned, I decided to get on with it and bail if I needed too. I didn't feel weak, other than a little fatigue in the legs from general training. On returning from the ride, I felt ok, ate well, and headed straight off to a gymnastics skills workshop. A very active one! Although I definitely noticed the sore throat, perhaps a little worse than before, throughout all the drills, physically I didn't feel anything other than totally fine.

After another disturbed night's sleep and the throat at its worst, I've ummed and ahhed all morning about whether to train.  The tricky bit is that I actually feel physically ok, if not positively good. I still can't ignore that I was up early this morning because I couldn't get back to sleep from the discomfort.

Why I'm not training through illness

Any workout in the 10,000 swing challenge is a tough one. Vigorous, intense, etc etc. Call it what you will. If it was just light or light/moderate training, its a different question. Intense exercise does however compromise your immune system in the short term. I might already have let the infection take a firmer grip, and another bout of intense exercise will only likely make this worse! I have to be physically fit to work to earn a wage, so my health is always the over-riding priority. Its an added risk I shouldn't really take.

Hint: Consider the nature of the workout ahead. Is it likely to significantly compromise your ability to fight off your illness? If so, don't do it!

The challenge is just that. Its not supposed to be easy, and part of me feels like riding it out because I thrive on the process of overcoming adversity - it can be very rewarding. That process I think only really applies to more psychological challenges however (whether or not they are created by physical ones). This is different. There is nothing 'brave' or useful about exercising through illness, its just stupid.  If I can't complete the challenge now, I can always do it again, later, or a modified version. The purpose of the challenge is also to test my skills (physical, psychological etc) and to come out the otherside stronger. I want a training and performance benefit from this experience. Not the opposite. Not training through illness can be the harder thin As an aside, its also important to consider the very real risk (albeit small) of exercising when suffering from an infection. I know of at least one athlete who has significantly impacted their health and well-being permanently from pushing through when unwell. Not cool.

Hint: Look at the bigger picture. Why are you training? To improve, or to make yourself weaker. I think people take this for granted or don't consider the question enough.

I don't get ill very often. I gave the kiss of death to this the other week, proudly proclaiming that fact. Since then, I've had a nasty bout of food poisoning after the UKSCA conference and now this. The last time I had a sore throat like this was in 2007, when I got pharyngitis and was off work for nearly a week. It can get worse that what I'm experiencing now, with the added physical fatigue as the body fights infection. Again, I need to work this coming week, so I need to prioritise that.

Hint: Take your time to think back to when you've been ill before. It can be unimaginably bad (e.g. man flu - girls just don't get it!)  Remember those times when you feel so ill, you forget what it's like to be well. Use your experience. On balance, think about what you want and do what you can to facilitate that. If that means rest, then rest. I don't want to relive my 2007 experience again - one or two workouts is not worth it!

It can be really hard to actually know how you feel. How ill is too ill? If we stopped training every time we felt slightly sub-par, we'd get nothing done. Since getting control of my diet and organising my lifestyle to prioritise my health and well-being, I don't think I appreciated how good I could feel. This comes down to experience, and trial and error. Yes sometimes (and only sometimes) we have to do too much to know where that line is. I question the value of always pushing our limits and 'living life on the edge'.  Applied inappropriately, this approach can be our undoing. But as Julius Caesar said a very long time ago "Experience is the teacher of all things". Sometimes there is only 1 way to really find out. That is, dipping your toe in the lake to assess if its filled with flesh eating piranhas as opposed to taking a running dive with somersault to find out the same.

Hint: One thing that can be useful in knowing how ill is too ill is appreciating the context of how you should or could feel. Focus on health for a while, sleep well, avoid caffeine, alcohol, eat a nutrient dense diet. Learn what great feels like. Also understand where you are in your training. Yesterday on my ride, my legs were tired, but I'd had an active week of coaching, and cycled 100 miles mostly all fixed/single speed and completed 2,000 kb swings. I probably should feel a little tired.

So after a day of rest and nutritious food, and plenty of fluids, fingers crossed tomorrow I'll feel more confident that I'm on top of this temporary set back!


Meeting of the Minds International Online Conference 2015 – A Summary

First of all, may I congratulate and thank Brendan (and all the quality speakers) on another great online strength and conditioning conference - Meeting of the Minds 2015. I tuned in last year and it really is an innovative idea that seems to work very well.

For those that didn't catch it all, I've included a Storify timeline of some of the main tweets throughout this year's Meeting of the Minds online conference. Over the next week, I will put together a post with some more detailed thoughts.

In the mean time, share, tweet and enjoy!

The Injured Triathlete

The Injured Triathlete

So I was recently asked on twitter by a triathlete for some hints and tips recovering from a severe injury picked up in base training. He wanted to know what he might be able to do both physically and psychologically to improve his situation.

The injured triathlete has competitive aspirations over middle distance triathlon, but has struggled with leg pain over the last couple of seasons. In late 2013 he was diagnosed with a stress fracture (having raced through the injury) and after 2 months out then encountered persistent problems with the same leg throughout 2014. Despite this he still managed to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships for 2015. At the end of the season, he went for some scans and was diagnosed with compartment syndrome. After undergoing surgery (a fasciectomy) he unfortunately then picked up an infection, and this is where we find ourselves. He’s gained a little weight through inactivity, and his thoughts are unsurprisingly focused on his hard earned slot at the World Champs at the end of August. He’s also entered Ironman Wales in mid-September.

So what would I recommend? Well there are lots of things I could say, and lots of ways I could say it. I haven’t spent time building a relationship with this athlete, so can’t even guess at what he might respond best to. Therefore I’ll say the things I think he needs to hear, not necessarily what he might want to hear. It therefore may seem a little blunt. It will be quite general and not partitioned into psychological and physical, but I hope of some use.

Be Realistic 

A little over 1 month ago, you’ve had surgery. Read that again. Thats right, someone has knocked you out with drugs, and cut you open. They’ve done this because you have a chronic problem that has interrupted your training for the last 2 years. Sounds pretty stressful to me. To make things worse, you’ve also had an infection, another major stressor on your body. Hobbling around on crutches always seemed so cool when you were 7 years old, but in reality it sucks (I guess at 7 most of us didn’t have jobs and meals to cook). Realistically, recovery from fasciectomy is going to be at least a 3-4 month timeline before you get back to any consistent form of training for triathlon. I’d change that for you if I could. But I can’t. No one can. It’s just the way it is. You need to accept this first and foremost - regardless of what it might mean for your season and the races you’ve qualified for. This means that for now, you need to let go of how you think you might do at the Worlds. You need to let go of how you think you might do at Ironman Wales. You need to do this because you can’t yet accurately predict what you’ve got to work with. There are many obstacles to first negotiate.

Let’s not wallow though. We can use realism for the positive too. Time goes on. The days will tick by and you will recover. Get professional advice and implement it. This doesn’t mean smashing it out of the park the first set of physio exercises you are prescribed and setting yourself back even further. This means trusting and believing in your support team. Trust that you will heal. Know that you can come back stronger. Nothing has changed in the principles behind your training. Do the right things consistently and you will improve. Better still, next time you reach your best, you’ll have a fully functioning leg to boot!

Focus on what matters and be constructive

As you will know by now, injuries don’t look at your race season and considerately time themselves for optimal convenience. Referencing your current athleticism, body composition and state of mind with where you would have been without the injury is pointless. Based on what you’ve told me, you’ve ignored this issue before and lived through the consequences. Having the surgery is a necessary step on your athletic journey. Unnecessary steps on your athletic journey might be include looking at where you would have been in your training by now, or at reports on Twitter and Facebook of others putting in epic training sessions. I hope this short video proves my point.

Focus on what matters - Focus on how you can support your recovery. It’s not going to be an easy ride. In fact is probably going to feel slow, boring and frustrating. Your recovery is going to be a winding path. A real challenge. But you thrive on challenges. Do remember though, that even if you do exactly what your physio says, neither (s)he nor I can guarantee your recovery will improve in a linear fashion day to day. It’s just not how it works. What you can guarantee your attendance, your commitment, your effort. Use your time back in the gym to learn and practise all the things you know you should be able to do. Master the basic movement competencies. Train around your injury too. Earn the right to progress. Come back stronger in every way.

Your lack of activity is not going to be helping your mood, and its quite common for an endurance athlete to put on a little weight when injured. How we eat is largely habitual, and so when activity levels change dramatically it can take a little while (and can be difficult) to adjust how much and what we eat. Recovering from injury is an energetically costly process though and food is medicine. What you eat is going to become the new stronger you. Focusing on high quality,  nutrient dense meals will help your mood and fuel recovery. The extra weight will take care of itself in time when training volume increases again.

Other things that are useful

I quite serendipitously came across an article on injury by Robbie Ventura after you had tweeted me. It was a great article and I include the take homes here also. All of these are still applicable and valid!

A bullet point summary of Robbie Ventura of his reflections from a recent injury (
Robbie Ventura's reflections on recovering from injury (

Use your support network

I’m not going to cite any papers or provide references, this one is self evident - when it comes to recovery from injury, support networks are seriously important! This includes friends, family, health professionals and even your crutches - use them.

Later down the line

I’ve also recently written this article for someone else who was returning to training after injury. I think a lot of this will still be applicable to you also. Do check it out.

Injuries are opportunities

I’ll finish with this as I think its a powerful idea. Sadly the idea is not mine (check out Ben Rosenblatt for more on this). Every serious injury I’ve had though, no matter how bleak things might have seemed at the time have resulted in me coming back stronger. I’ve managed to return a better athlete every time, going on some wild adventures in the process. Injuries make you evaluate, focus and work on your weakness. Strangely, my injuries have even been the catalyst for me to change my profession and entire lifestyle.  You are still the right side of 30 and as an endurance athlete, your best days are still ahead of you. What you make of this injury, and where you go on your athletic journey from here, really is up to you.

If you liked this article please share it with anyone you think might benefit. If you have any questions you want answering, please feel free to email me ( or contact me on twitter @acbcoaching.