nutrition, Training Plans

Am I ill? Should I train?!

Now I wasn’t really planning to write this as such,  but my own experience and how I am feeling right now prompted it.

This year, like any other in reality, as we all know, there are so many viruses, colds and other ‘bugs’ flying around.  Almost half of the guys I train are under the weather, my own partner is – I am avoiding her like the plague – Although I don’t think its worked!

The questions posed in the title, seems, almost stupid.  NO I hear many of you cry!  Of course not!  But then there are many who subscribe to the ‘sweat it out philosophy’ of helping the body to get the virus out quicker.  So who is right? And how do I know?

One of the problems, especially at the onset of a virus, or as we come to the end of an illness is knowing if you are ‘fit to train’.   When you train regularly, consistently and methodically you get to know your body.  You know the aches, the groans and the indicators.  BUT sometimes it can be hard to judge between, am I just a bit tired and lethargic?  Or am I on the way down with something?

There are a number of ‘rules of thumb’ and also some simple guidance that I Illustrate below that may help make this decision.

Generally the ‘rules are’, if the problem is above the neck, i.e.: a head cold, runny nose, stuffed up, cough etc.  Then proceed with caution, lower the intensity of the exercise.  If as you move through the session you feel the pipes clear (as such!) and your training sensations are good, then slowly ramp the intensity – BUT the advice here is stay below threshold (significantly).

If the problem is on the chest too, then the rule is don’t train as you could well prolong and worsen the problem.  Believe me I have personal experience of this.  A few years ago I had a flu jab, I thought I was being clever to avoid any nasties!   What I did wrong (stupidly) is continued to train hard on the day and following the flu jab.  Now as any one knows a vaccination is basically the introduction of a massively reduced potency of the virus to allow the body to develop the necessary antibodies.  What I did wrong is introduced  a ‘virus’ into an already weakened immune system due to training,  Then continued to train hard further depleting the bodies protection.  Suffice to say I spent new year in Hospital with pneumonia.  Lesson learnt!

What this also illustrates is that on the incubation period of an illness it can be very easy to make it worse by training hard, when the body needs to focus on fighting the infection, not on pushing hard in training, or aiding recovery.

Back then to the point I raised above, How do I know if I am on the verge of something, or if i am just tired from work, Christmas, training, life in general?

There are no hard fast rules here, but a couple of tips may help.

  1. Resting Heart Rate – If you regularly monitor your resting heart rate you will have an idea what this is.  Any elevation of this level by maybe 5-10 beats may indicate that the body is working hard fighting a virus or infection and that you should proceed with caution.
    Ok – so what if you don’t (like me) measure your resting heart rate regularly?
  2. The below is what I see as a simple guide and indicator and ‘red flag’ . Its particularly useful if
    1. You are unsure ‘how you feel’, is that tiredness just tiredness or something else?
    2. If you are less experienced at understanding your own body

Today I had set myself a 3hr endurance session, a progressive ‘builder set’. working through Z2, Z3 to just below SS, followed by some quality endurance on the Z2/3 border. This is a great session as , on paper it looks easy, the numbers not too taxing.  But hitting 20min of SS after a progressive 90min build is challenging.


As you can see, from the ‘yellow colour’ and time I didn’t complete the session to plan.

As I progressed I noticed my Heart rate was running around 10bpm higher for a given power than I’d normally see.  Now as training philosophy has moved on, specifically in cycling,  Heart rate is used much less as gauge of ‘effort’.  The reason being Heart Rate is an output, affected by numerous inputs (some examples below)

  • Exercise (obviously)!
  • Hydration
  • Sleep quality
  • Previous training load
  • Illness

We use power as the primamry ‘measurement’ tool,  this is a direct ‘force’ measurement of the input from your legs through the pedals.  BUT mapping heart rate V power and understanding the dynamic can help indicate some things.

So if we look in detail at this session:

HR V power 1

Average power of 266w, and Heart rate of 154avg.  This is the first red flag to me and what I would look at in a clients file, irrespective of commentary (or not!).  266w should be mid Z2 for me, 154HR is mid Z3.  My heart is working too hard.

Below is a similar, albeit longer session from 2 weeks ago:

Power V HR good

Avg power 288w – Low Z3, Heart rate 150bpm, Low Z3 – spot on.  Nice session.

Now lets look in detail within the session and ‘see the problem’

power V hR high 2

This 30min block within the session is a great example.  High z2 power, But a mid Z3 heart rate.  This is a clear indicator something is wrong.  Also if we look generally at the session, the trajectory of the heart rate is upwards through out, even in the last 20mins where power was lower.  I was struggling and the heart was working harder to maintain the effort.

Now if we look at that session from 2 weeks ago, we see ‘what a good job looks like’

power V hR gd 2

Here for a 40min interval, 90min into the session, I averaged 307 watts (mid Z3) with a low Z3 heart rate average of 153bpm.  Also as you can see the heart rate is relatively stable over the session and responding to power – higher power, and it increases, lower power it drops. As we would expect.

So today, In the session I made a choice, to both reduce the intensity V planned as my heart rate was too high, and also reduce the overall session time.  Sensible.

Since I returned from Tenerife I have been having the internal debate, Am I actually ‘ill’ or am I just tired from a tough week of training.  For me this proves that I am (potentially) on the way to being ill.  So time to ease up!

There are many more complex analytical ‘tool’s’ to look at Heart rate and power decoupling and many other magical sounding analysis.  I like the simplicity of direction of the above, and its something anyone can use very quickly

So what can I do, and what advice do I have for you?

  1. Monitor your heart rate response, and ideally get to know your resting levels.
  2. Be sensible, firstly go by the ‘rule of thumb’, secondly closely monitor how your heart rate V power stacks V previous ‘known’ good sessions.
  3. Understand your body and its indicators – and listen to it!
  4. Focus on sleep – the biggest friend of recovery form illness!
  5. Eat well, greens, antioxidants, good quality food, and maybe less alcohol (boo!)

Finally, I am no Doctor! This is not ‘medical advice’ but more some guidance in helping you understand your body and when to hit the gas, and when to rest up!

Stay healthy – its not easy!




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