With the arrival of winter, evenings spent with a nice cup of steaming hot chocolate in hand, perched under a soft blanket watching our favorite TV series on the sofa also begin. Christmas is coming, colored lights are everywhere and the cities are festively decorated.
Put like this, winter seems like a wonderful season, except that unfortunately it also brings the flu with it and like every year the flu peak is right around the Christmas holidays. These last holidays then it was a real massacre both here in the UK and in Italy, therefore it is not difficult to imagine that the whole of Europe was subjugated by the influenza virus.
Luckily the worst is over now and some of my clients asked me when they can return to the gym. Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all answer, so I always ask each client for more details to understand their personal situation and advise them as best as possible.
However, let's see, in general terms, how to understand when the right time is to return to training.
Understand the symptoms
In the gym environment there is a general rule to decide whether you can train or not: if the symptoms are from the neck up (cold, sore throat) you can train, if the symptoms are from the neck down (cough, joint pain, stomachache, fever) better to take a break and rest.
In my opinion this rule is too generic and cannot apply to everyone since the immune and adaptive response are extremely subjective characteristics.
Symptoms from the neck up
A healthy individual who has trained consistently for years can certainly benefit from the immune response induced by training and thanks to this they could relieve the symptoms of colds and sore throats. Therefore, it will not be necessary to stop training completely, just adjust the intensity based on how you feel.
However, if we talk about a person who suffers from some medical condition or has had health problems in the past that still make them sickly, I advise against training even if it is a simple cold. Even if cold is not a serious condition, training requires a good dose of energy. Energy that the body needs to fight the virus and heal, especially in a delicate individual. In this case, it is therefore better to go for a walk in the fresh air, possibly under the sun, to stimulate the cardiovascular system and the production of vitamin D. Even light activities such as stretching and yoga can help.
Symptoms from the neck down
Symptoms of this type are the ones that knock you down, so you will hardly have enough energy to tackle a workout.
If fever is present, training is an absolute "NO". Fever is a self-defense mechanism triggered by the body when it finds itself fighting against certain viruses and bacteria. The increase in body temperature serves to stimulate the metabolism and use the energy reserves to support the immune defenses.
Training in these conditions would cause a state of dehydration which would worsen your health. Furthermore, fever causes muscle weakness and attention deficit, increasing the risk of injury.
The Open Window Theory
As anticipated, a healthy individual can benefit from training when suffering from a cold or sore throat. However, I must open a small parenthesis on what is called the "Open Window" theory.
According to this theory, high-intensity endurance training sessions would cause short-term suppression of the immune system, making the subject more susceptible to upper respiratory infection (URI). This event mainly affects athletes who undergo very intense training and competitions.
Simplifying: the organism goes into an overload state, it weakens and the individual is more susceptible to catching the flu. It is therefore important for prevention purposes to adequately dose the training load.
The dangers of returning to training too soon
When you have goals in mind and have spent a lot of time and energy to achieve them, it is normal that you want to start training again as soon as possible to "limit the damage" caused by the long flu break.
However, returning to physical activity before being completely healed, with the immune system still weakened, can lead to relapses that would prolong recovery times and consequently the absence from training. Furthermore, when you have the flu, the state of dehydration and the fever cause an increase in the heart rate which, added to the increase caused by the physical activity, could lead to dizziness and irregularities in the heart rhythm.
It is therefore important to monitor your resting heart rate and make sure it has returned to normal before deciding whether to start training again.
When and how to return to training
Resumption of training must occur when you feel 100% recovered. The fever must have disappeared for a week and you should not have taken any medicines for at least two days. Moreover, the recovery will have to be gradual: you cannot think of lifting the same loads that you lifted before the flu.
Therefore, the sessions will have to be lighter and shorter than usual in the first week. Based on how you feel at the end of the week you can then adjust subsequent workouts and slowly return to your routine.
In these first few weeks it is important to take all the time you need to recover. If you feel like you need a little more rest don't hesitate to stop.
Take care of your diet to regain the energy lost during illness and the strength to tackle training sessions: so eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, and drink plenty of water to rehydrate and fill up on vitamins and minerals.
Last but not least, no guilt! If you have been training for months with consistency and commitment, a week or two of break will certainly not ruin the work you have done.
As we have seen, the dangers of returning to training too soon are certainly worse than the slight loss of strength and endurance following the stop. So don't be discouraged, a forced break can happen to anyone! When you'll feel better, you'll be even more motivated to give your best!
Have a good workout!