Being sick and training for a marathon – Dos and Don’ts

This week I was sick.  I struggled not just to train, but to make it to the shops. Or out of bed.  I was pathetic.  This was the 10 days leading up to my last big 20 mile run and the beginning of my marathon taper and I couldn’t train.  I was devastated and tempted to do some very stupid things.  I’m well now and because of that I have compiled some Dos and Don’ts that I have learnt over the last few years of not running.  Listen to Sensei: Don’t find these out the hard way.

1. DO: Stop running

It really is that simple.  If you are coughing like a chain smoker, wheezing like an overbred chihuahua breathing through a hockey mask, aching like a lovestruck teenager and pooing like an incontinent poodle who has overdosed on laxative-laced dog food then you don’t want to be knocking out 16 mile training runs.  You want to be in bed drinking Lemsip.  And reading a Swedish detective novel from the 60s. Be honest with yourself.  Running is for when you are well.

2. DO: Use running as a motivation for taking care of yourself

The other edge of the “shut up – go to bed – drink green tea – no chocolate ice cream” sword is that you now have motivation to get better.  So you miss running? Well sleep for 12 hours today and you’ll be closer to your next run.  Take the day off work instead of slaving through it and it won’t be long before you are running from angry geese along a canal while a tramp tries to crush you with a shopping cart because you haven’t shaved in 3 weeks and he thinks you’re Jesus.  Or wherever you run.

3. DON’T: Think about running

Thinking about running will only frustrate you, and being frustrated isn’t conducive to healing.  So put the Runner’s World away and read an article about whether Echinacea actually does something or how to make homemade butternut squash soup or one of those hard-hitting Guardian articles about house plants or artisan coffee.

Butternut squash soup. Yum!

4. DON’T: Start training again too soon

“Great, I haven’t thrown up in 1 hour and my nose was clear for 15 seconds today, I’m ready for that 12 mile fartlek session in the pouring rain…  “

Easy tiger! This is the only point here that I actually broke myself.  I went on a brisk 12km run probably one day too early into my recovery.  My rationale was:

  • Running releases endorphins
  • Endorphins stimulate the immune system
  • Running makes me so happy it has to help
I got away with it, but there were a couple of hours right after the run where I thought it might be quite bad.  I was lucky, but it could easily have set me back a long way.  I wouldn’t recommend it.

5. DON’T: Ramp up your training to compensate

When I was ill and frustrated at not training I had mapped out about 5 consecutive 10-12 mile power sessions to make up for lost time.  This is a classic mistake.  And the important point is this:

You can’t make up for lost training. You are more likely to prolong your illness than to help yourself.

After my first run back, upon realising that “I could still run”, I decided just to take the training hit.  I calculated it was 3% of my total training and “got over it”.  Experience taught me the way.

6. DON’T: Shorten your taper to compensate

Not tapering will leave your preparation half-baked.

This is the other classic mistake to make when you are feeling ill close to the start of your taper.  You find yourself justifying a 1 week taper.  Or maybe 3 days.  Or maybe 1 day.  Ultimately they don’t recommend a taper based on some complex reasoning or on elaborate guesswork.  It is pure science.  Sports scientists analysed 100s of atheletes that didn’t taper verses 100s of atheletes that tapered for 2-3 weeks and worked out the tapering ones performed much better.  You are no exception. Go home and bake some bread that you prove for only half the recommended time.  Now how did that bread turn out?

7. DO: Get some f***ing perspective

You’re not Mo Farah. You’re a sick office worker who does running as a hobby.

8. DO: Watch your game of Thrones Blu-Ray set

"Joffrey after a heavy intervals session"

It is awesome.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with running.   Although even though King Joffrey isn’t the world’s best King, I think he would have made the best runner.  Possibly without the armour.

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3 Responses to Being sick and training for a marathon – Dos and Don’ts

  1. Joyce says:

    Very useful advice, Dunc! I have been dosing up on the Lemsip myself, sick off work for 2 days and trying not to feel frustrated about not being able to run 🙂

  2. Trevor says:

    Great advice …..again it takes self discipline to sit back and let your body rest and recoup when sick…..easier said then done!

  3. miriam says:

    Two things: 1) I adore your blog. It’s so refreshing to read a running blog about RUNNING. And that has a real sense of humour. 2) #7 on this list made me laugh and then I went home from work to sleep. Because you’re right! And I needed this arse-kicking perspective.

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