Sick Happens

Well, not sick, but she DOES have an IV line in.

Well, not sick, but she DOES have an IV line in.

Some of my athletes are sick right now. That's not too surprising, given the late-winter date on the calendar, the incessant rain in Portland (not that I'm suggesting cold and wet weather leads to sickness—that is a hard-to-kill old wive's tale; cold and wet, however, does promote an environment for the viruses that may be hoovering around your particular airspace: more noses run, more snot is left unwiped on door handles, more fluids and molecules get exchanged than normal), and the fact that, if you're reading this blog, you're at greater risk for sickness, given the extra stress you're putting on your body through training. So let's imagine that you've come down with something.

First of all, it's totally understandable that you're worried. You've been training hard throughout the spring, building your threshold power on the bike, improving your run endurance, and working on technique in the pool. Your first big race is less than four weeks away, and you feel like you're on track to better your performance from last year, which was a strong performance in the first place. And then you get sick, and not just congestion/head-cold sick, but, like, Influenza sick, like if-it-were-the-1920's-there's-a-50-50-chance-you-would-die sick. You can't go to work for days; you can't really get out of bed. Your boss calls you up and, rather than thinking you're skipping work, he ends the conversation concerned for you. You're out for at least a week. What do you do?

This is where this blog post takes a bit of a turn (or, at least, I hope it does). There is a real guideline to follow with sickness, which I'll lead with here: If you're sick, wait until you feel COMPLETELY NORMAL (100% back to normal), and then...WAIT ONE MORE DAY. Yes, you read that correctly. Wait until you feel perfect, and then wait another day. I can't tell you how many times I've told this to athletes, and then heard something like "Well, I think I'm OK. I've still got a bit of a sore throat and a head cold, but I could probably train." A week later, the cold is back, and the intervening week of training is pretty much wasted.

But I get it. Not training feels calamitous. It feels as if you're sliding back into your pre-season lack of fitness. You've spent money on travel, on a race, on a coach (I hope). The thought of doing nothing for a week is terrifying. And here's where I hope you'll learn something from this blog. The basic guideline is simple (wait until 100%; wait one more day), but the execution can be excruciating. Here's a chance to do some mental training, while you're sick.

  1. Why is it excruciating? What about losing a week of training threatens your sense of identity as an athlete? Or, to put it more bluntly, what are you afraid of losing?
  2. Now that you've admitted what you're afraid of losing, keep following that thread. If you lose that thing, what's next? What else will you lose? What's at risk if you take a week off of training?
  3. Keep heading on down the ladder, until you get to the very bottom. It'll probably be something you didn't expect, something like "people will know that I'm a fraud," or "everyone will be proved right about me."
  4. Now take a step back and see how far apart Point A (taking a week off from training) and Point B (everyone knows I'm a fraud) are, in fact. This greater sense of perspective might expose to you that the only person making this training interruption calamitous is, in fact, you.
  5. Sorry about that. Didn't mean to make you feel worse. It's important, though, that you recognize this is coming from your own personal demons.

Now it's time to start the journey back up. I hope that by forcing yourself through that exercise you may see that your reaction outstrips reality (is taking a week off of training really going to change how anyone thinks about you? Very likely not; in fact, those people you're worried about really aren't thinking about you that much, anyway; probably something like 30-60 seconds per week, max). With a little perspective you can start seeing the fact that your season is quite long, and a week's interruption won't change much. And if you rush back and get sick again, you've just created a much bigger and longer interruption.

So I (or any one of the CBCG coaches) can say this to you until we're blue in the face, but what we really want is to get there alongside you. There's a great saying in coaching and teaching: "tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I'll learn." What we're after, here, is mastery of your particular sport. What is mastery? It means, well, literally mastering your sport, being able to direct your ability and your intent on your own, in the moment, without someone else's direction. As coaches (and, in particular, endurance coaches) there is nothing we can do for you while you're in competition. You are largely alone. So what we want for you is the ability to make decisions on your own, respond to new information, and thrive no matter the environment. Learning how to deal with sickness can become a microcosm for being a better athlete. The first few times you get sick you'll want to rush back. Your coach will remind you, gently, to wait. The first few times you won't listen, and you'll be sick again in a week. Then you have a chance to take control of it yourself, owning it and taking the break you need to take. Together, with your coach, you monitor your situation day-by-day, and make the call to come back after a full day of feeling 100%. You don't get sick again. You go on to have an excellent sharpening period before that big race. You do better than you anticipated, probably due to the rest you put in while convalescing (the sporting world is full of stories like this). So that's nice, but the real benefit is that you've taken a step towards mastery of the sport. You're on your way to becoming more of a collaborator with your coach, rather than a mule who just does what's he or she is told. This is how every high-achieving, high-level athlete I know works. They are happier, more confident, and freer in everything they do, inside and outside of sport. They have mastered not only the sickness thing, but they've probably mastered most of their craft, as well.