Keep Training or Rest?
by Russ Cox
A four hour flight took me from miserable grey clouds and drizzle to warmth and sunshine. The first training camp of the new season came with high expectations -- a big week to wake me from my winter slumber and kick start the year ahead. If nothing else I would enjoy the simple pleasures of replacing thermal layers with shorts and t-shirts and the sun tanning my anemic skin.
On arrival in Lanzarote I sniffed, then sneezed; before I'd put foot to pedal the signs of a cold appeared. It was the season's make-or-break camp and I was ill. There was too much at stake, I'd been here before and trained through far worse; I could carry on as planned.
So I did. For the next few days I swam in an open air pool, rode miles over mountains and ran along rough dirt trails; tough, long days after a winter spent ticking by on minimal hours. Training was meeting its goal: stretching me out of the off season and throwing me into the year ahead. I worked hard and forgot about those early hints of illness.
Then, on day four, whatever virus had caused my sneezes attacked in force. After a hard, but incomplete day of training I felt drained. The cold had progressed and breathing was more difficult, there was no denying the illness now. But the next day was supposed to be an easy day, and I'd been here before, so I figured I could carry on as planned; a run and a swim would do no harm.
So I did. An already struggling immune system was stretched further, my easy day was too much, leaving me bedridden for the final day of camp -- forced to really rest. It helped a little. My journey home was easier and more pleasant for the recovery, but a week of poor health followed; eroding much of what I'd gained during my four successful days there. It appeared my make-or-break camp had broken me. Where had I gone wrong?
Choosing when to rest and when to keep going is one of the hardest decisions we make. Because while we know recovery is part of gaining fitness we also know without training we won't build fitness; traveling hundreds of miles for that very purpose only amplifies the problem. Logic dictates that the more we train, the fitter we get; hence resting has to be a last resort, right? And for me it was. I had to be stopped in my tracks and lost an important day in the process.
I arrived in Lanzarote with just a hint of a cold. I kept going. I'd trained through this before and been fine, but as symptoms worsened, rather than reevaluate I bulldozed on. There was my mistake.
I'm not medically qualified; I diagnose myself based on how I feel, and if I'm honest I am not very good at it. Knowing I was ill, day five -- the planned easy day -- should have been a rest day. That's when I should have spent the day in bed. If I had, perhaps I would have recovered and returned to training sooner. Instead my need to train -- the instinct that tells me I have to do more -- ruled over me and I ignored the warning signs. It is possible to train while ill, but it requires careful judgement because it's not always beneficial -- were two extra hours on my easy day worth the week off that followed? Hindsight is a powerful tool; with time to reflect I've realized how often I've avoided rest to my detriment, simply because, “I have to train.”
I suspect -- actually I know -- I'm not alone in this bias towards training and fear of resting. We'll never know if training or resting was the right choice until after the fact, but we should know that however strong our urge to keep training, we can't ignore signs from our body. Rest isn't a dirty word, whether you're at home or on a training camp.
Russ is a full-time triathlete and endurance coach who has raced and trained around the world. His Trains, Travels blog focuses on endurance triathlon training from an athlete's perspective, covering topics such as nutrition, training, psychological preparation and what to do during taper and recovery.