To Rest or not to Rest?

Old man winter seems to have struck again, at least in the Mid-Atlantic. We are in the midst of snowstorm 5 for the winter. Normally this area might get hit once, but this year has been pretty rough. Admittedly, I love the snow, so I don’t mind. And I work from home if I can’t get and drive, which is nice. But along with the winter storms, comes winter colds/viruses, the flu, and other not fun ailments. When you put a type A athlete together with a virus, things don’t usually mesh. Along those same lines, when you put an athlete together with a little nagging pain, it’s not good either.

So, how do you know when to say “I’m good to go and exercise,” or it’s time to give it a rest? It’s hard to know what to do, and it’s even harder to actually do it. Especially when the answer is rest. There is no cold hard science for this either, it’s a combination of knowing yourself, trusting yourself or your coach and what has worked in the past. I’m also not a doctor, so go to the doctor if you need to. And sometimes you will need antibiotics, which will help you to get better faster and can only be gotten through a doctor’s prescription. Or possibly, you’ll need orthotics, a PRP injection or even surgery.

For Colds/Viruses/Bacterial Infections:

  • My rule is, if the illness is at the throat or above, you can exercise. If it’s below the throat, you have to rest
  • If you have a fever, you have to rest. A fever means your body is fighting something, and if you push your body to exercise while it is already fighting an infection, it has to work harder.
  • The exercise must be done at an easier level, as long as it is tolerable and you feel ok. Stop if you don’t. This is not the time where if you keep pushing, you’ll start to feel better. In fact, it’s the opposite.
  • Viral infections can’t be treated with antibiotics, so you just have to let them run their course. Most times you are looking at 5-10 days to feel better. However I’ve known people to be sick for 2 weeks, up to a few months (with mononucleosis).
  • Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. Most people are also looking at the 5-10 day range.
  • Once you are sick, you usually need at least double that time to feel back to normal. So, if you are sick for 5 days, it can take 10 days till you feel like you are back to your normal workouts and intensities. And it’s not a case of, you just aren’t working hard enough, your body went through a lot and it takes time to heal
  • So, if you want to get better faster, rest, rest and rest. With plenty of sleep and liquids. Don’t prolong being sick, just to squeeze out another workout. Working out sick will not improve your fitness.

A good example of this is with my husband Brett. A few days ago he came home from school saying he didn’t feel well. Typical head cold symptoms of dizziness, headache, congested nose, etc. I told him to rest on the couch, and made him some cocoa. Cocoa makes everything better right? The next day, he said he was feeling better and decided to go running with a group in Baltimore. I suggested he rest. He went to the group run and enjoyed a free beer after. He came back and within an hour said “I feel worse.” So long story short, he was sick for another few days, with two days of not being able to leave the couch. Could he have gotten better sooner if he just rested? Probably, but I can’t be sure.

Nagging pain/Sudden onset of pain/Flaring of an old injury:

  • I’m a conservative coach. This means, if you have any of the above, it’s time to stop. The worst thing that can happen is if you decide to push through a pain and you make it worse.
  • If it’s a nagging pain, it’s time to stop doing the things that cause the pain. Rest from doing the exercise until it’s gone away, then slowly continue from there.
  • If it’s a sudden onset of pain, stop right away and think A. Did I just pull/tear something or B. Did I just step on something weird, am I wearing a new pair of shoes, etc. Depending on your analysis, it’s most likely, stop what you’re doing, and depending on your body, slowly start again to see if the pain is still there, or just stop. Sometimes you’ll get a sudden pain, then it will go away 10sec later and never come back. You have to analyze and see what happens.
  • If after taking an NSAID, resting, icing, compression (RICE) doesn’t seem to relieve it, seek help from a PT, chiro, massage therapist.
  • If you’ve flared up an old injury, same thing. RICE, plus an NSAID. Then, seek help from a specialist or slowly start to build to see if resting was enough.

The worst thing that you can do if you have injured yourself, re-injured yourself, or just pushed through pain, is cause further damage. There is a time to push through pain and a time to stop. You have to learn what types of pain are good, and what types of pain are bad. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell, other times it’s not. When you’ve got leg burning pain while running uphill, this is good pain. When you have a sudden sharp pain in your hamstring while running uphill, this is not.

In addition, coming back to soon after injury can be just as bad. It is so tempting to want to come back. You think,
“I’m losing my fitness, I’m gaining weight, I’m being a baby, I’m not tough enough,” etc. You have to put your ego aside, and let you body heal. In my case, I wonder what I could have done differently with my hamstring.

I injured it cycling, and I immediately stopped. I took an NSAID, iced and sought help from a PT. They said I had strained it and to rest it for a week or two. I did just that, plus I bought a thigh compression sleeve. I had a big race coming up and wanted to be ready. After a few weeks, the pain was better, but not gone. They said as long as there was no severe pain, I could continue my training, and I did. Unfortunately, I should have done something differently. Whether that be ask for a second opinion, get an MRI, not do my race, etc. I’ll never know. But I thought I did the right thing, and even though I did, or I thought I did, it didn’t heal. In fact, what started off as a strain might have turned into a tear. Or possibly I had torn it from the beginning. I’ll never know. But what I do know is, nothing is more important than finding out the cause of the pain. As I coach, I’ve seen a lot of injuries. But, I’m not qualified to diagnose. So, if you have an injury, I’ll send you to a PT to get things checked out. I’d rather we nip something in the butt, then let something drag on and get worse.

This might make me conservative, but I’d rather you get checked out then injure yourself further. In fact, a word I like is Prehab. Prehab is when you seek out a specialist before you get injured. Most runners and triathletes have a weak area. This area is most commonly the glutes. We don’t use our hip stabilizers enough, and this can cause weak glutes. This is just one common weakness. But, going to a PT for an assessment, prior to starting a endurance program can be a great idea, and cause less heartache down the road.

So, before you push through an illness or pain, think about what the consequences might be. It’s often better to rest, then it is to push through. Everyone knows endurance athletes are very tough, both mentally and physically. This is not the time to prove it.


  • By Faith - on

    Great information Cristina. I am so glad that I listened to you with my weird ankle pain. Your advice and direction helped it heal and of course it also helped to have you remind me not to panic! I am so happy that you are my coach!

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