Returning to your Workouts after Illness

If your fitness regime is thrown off course by an illness – a bout of the flu, a winter cold or a dreaded viral “lergy’, you’ll need to consider when is the right time for you to return to exercise. When we’re unwell we need to listen to our body, be kind to it and give it what it needs – rest, good nutrition, sometimes supplements or perhaps a visit to the GP for medication. Some of us are good at “listening”, some of us are not and will be itching to get back to our workouts. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule – time off is really important to give your body the chance to bounce back, but the amount of time it takes is very individual.


The type of illness you have and the severity of your symptoms will of course dictate when you can return to exercise. Your symptoms will obviously keep you out of the studio for as long as they last – no-one feels like a workout with a pounding headache or a raging sore throat.


The nature and location of your symptoms can be an indication of the type of illness you have. I read this in a journal a few years ago and liked the concept – ‘above the neck’ symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, watery eyes or a mild sore throat, and the more serious ‘below the neck’ ones, such as a cough, a congested or tight chest, an upset tummy, muscle aches, and fever. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but a great guideline.


If your symptoms are ‘above the neck’, not contagious and you feel OK, it’s fine to do a light workout – keep the activity light to moderate, and brief. Pilates, mat and reformer, and gentle Vinyasa or restorative yoga would be perfect in this case. Research shows the symptoms of the average cold normally last around a week, but workout too vigorously and you risk prolonging your illness.


If your symptoms are ‘below the neck’, give your workout a miss even if you think you can do it. Exercising with these symptoms, particularly a fever, will prolong your illness and can make it worse. When you’re running a fever the energy needed by your immune system to fight off infections will be compromised if you exercise. And this means you’ll invite lingering symptoms to worsen.


Before heading back to the studio make sure you haven’t had a fever for at least 48 hours, no longer have any aches and pains and you should also have a few good night’s sleep under your belt. So once the nasty symptoms have gone the advice is the same – start with light to moderate, brief workouts. Reduce your cardio and resistance training to about three quarters of your usual output. Allow your first training session to be the test of your body’s strength after the toll of your illness. Monitor how you feel, make sure you stay well hydrated (particularly if you have had a stomach bug), avoid getting wet and cold and look out for telltale signs that you are overdoing it, such as a workout feeling harder than it should, shortness of breath, weakness or dizziness. It’s important to ease back into your regular routine, otherwise you’re likely to end up back in bed. Be forgiving of yourself – your fitness and strength will return in good time.


Having to stop exercising due to illness or injury can be tough, and boring. A fortnight can seem like forever, especially if you love your workouts, the studio and the people there (we get that!). Or if you’re training for a specific event with a looming deadline it’s important not to panic and rush back. If you miss a couple of days in the studio, it’s not a disaster. Consider this – the quality of your training is as important as the quantity. Training when you’re not 100% well is not going to give you the quality your workout deserves and can set you back. Don’t try to make up for lost time. Before you know it, you’ll be on top of your workout again!