It is flu season, but hopefully it is over by the time you read this. Recently I had a couple of clients become quite sick, and had to miss training. They were both worried about losing progress, and one even had a competition coming up the next weekend. She was so worried she’d lose all her strength and get embarrassed at the competition. She even ignored me telling her to rest, and snuck to the gym to train one evening despite having a fever. I couldn’t really blame her, because I know exactly how she felt. I know a lot of people have that little voice in their head too. That nasty little voice telling them that if they miss training, even for a legitimate reason, that they’ll get fat, lose all their strength, or be starting from scratch again. I fight this voice too.
I was injured and sick a lot in my athletic career. Being a stubborn and undersized player in hockey and lacrosse I spent the majority of my career injured and always felt that I needed to tough things out when possible. I worked, or played, through injuries my entire college career. The times when I suffered major injuries and could not get on the field at all, I was the guy in the gym hobbling around in a full-leg brace and crutches repping out bench-press because I didn’t want to lose my strength. On long road-trips, I was repping out pushups in the hotel-room because I didn’t want to lose strength yet again. So, trust me, I’ve been obsessed too, I get it.
But, does training through injuries and sickness actually make sense? Is it worth it? I have to say barring extenuating circumstances like a championship game, or if money is on the line, then the answer is a big no. And trust me, I really tested this theory. In my opinion, training through illness and injury only reduces your level of performance, and worsens, or prolongs, injuries and illness. Furthermore, while you are battling through an injury/illness and your performance is compromised as a result, the only thing coaches, scouts, and the scoreboard will consider is your lowered performance. No one but you will care, or often even know, that you are sick or injured. There is no asterisk that counts for anything in competition.
Another point to consider is that if you are sick or injured, your body is already working over time fighting to get better. Training is a stressor to the body, so you are giving your body a double whammy of work to do if you go train hard during sickness. This may prolong the injury or illness which leaves you worse off than if you stayed at home and watched the entire season 2 of Stranger Things instead.
The purpose of this blog post is to put some of that stress centred around missing training to rest. I was forced into being a guinea pig here because I had a horrible past six months of training due to injuries (and bad medical advice). This period of injury was different however because for the first time probably ever, I actually didn’t “work through the injury”. I just stopped training my lower body altogether and greatly reduced my volume overall. If that evil voice in our heads is right, I should have lost a lot of strength in the past six months. We’ll see….
Background: (If you want to skip through to the data go ahead)
May: Out of the blue my knees started acting up to the point where I had to stop training altogether. A doctor who will remain nameless told me I had early onset arthritis. This was due to the ACL Reconstructions I have had on both knees. He told me that my days of activity were essentially over. “Don’t do anything that hurts them”. I was also prescribed 1200mg of Naproxen/Day (Wow). This diagnosis caused me to feel quite lost, and honestly quite depressed. I stopped training olympic lifting, as well as squatting and deadlifting for the next couple of months. I did some small leg muscle work, but virtually nothing with a barbell. For me, compared to my usual volume, I had basically given up, and stopped training.
May to Late August: Luckily I work for the best Athletic Therapist in Saskatoon. He was concerned with the doctors diagnosis, and suspected that I had something called Pens Anserine Bursitis, which basically means that my tight hockey hips were causing tightness which radiated down and caused the pain in my knees. He had me work on some small muscles in my legs that I had neglected and recommended continuing to work on loosening my hips. This alleviated my symptoms almost entirely.
Early September to Mid October: My knees were feeling great, but I had been too scared to return to olympic lifting or squatting because of the arthritis diagnosis. I kind of wanted to be able to walk without pain as I am still under thirty years old. Luckily, I got a second opinion from a Knee Surgeon who confirmed that I did not have arthritis, and my knees were in fact healthy. My pain was likely the result of the Pens Anserine Bursitis as my boss had suspected. I returned to lifting and felt quite good, and was so thankful to be able to do what I love again.
Unfortunately, about a week later I tore my LCL doing Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. So, this meant another 4-6 weeks of no squatting.
As you can see I pretty much missed an entire summer of lifting. During this time, I went to the gym 3x/week, and did some small leg muscle work after the knees had calmed down, but mostly I pumped good old beach workouts in the 12-15 rep-range. If I could no longer be strong, I was at-least going to look strong ;)
That little voice in my head was strong through the whole summer. It was constantly telling me that I would be starting from scratch again with my olympic lifts, or I’d never be able to lift again, and I should stop trying to lift altogether. Based on my summer, if anyone should have gotten weak and lost their gains, it was me.
Let’s Test That Little Voice Mid November I had just arrived in Canggu, Bali after travelling around the island for about three weeks. Here I found the massive playground of Crossfit Wanderlust. I had started squatting again since leaving Canada, but nothing extensive. I had been using local Bali gyms which were not designed for squatting sessions so my leg work had been limited. I had put in about 9 sessions of lifting since being cleared, and my knee had healed up well.
I was so excited to be around nice barbells again and felt that urge to go heavy. I realize it may not have been the smartest to time max-out given the past six months I had had, as well as the limited training I had done since my injury…. but I couldn’t resist. The biggest reason however, was that I thought it would be super interesting to see how much weaker I had become after all that time off before I put in too much volume post injury. If that little voice in my head was right, I should have been significantly weaker at this point.
Here are my last/best tested numbers from the past year or two:
As you can see, it had been awhile since I have tested. Here is what I tested out at Crossfit Wanderlust, and I am about 5kg lighter (currently 71-72kg) for the second set of numbers.
What does this tell us?
These results should be extremely interesting for the reader, and kind of a relief. The biggest drop off was in the snatch and clean, which makes sense because they are not only strength/power driven, but also highly skill dependant. My technique was choppy here, and my confidence getting under the bar suffered as a result. On the ring Muscle-Up test I actually Pr’d despite only doing ring Muscle-Ups on one or two occasions in the past two years. Apparently the “skill-work” that was missing in my training hadn’t hurt me much. The upper body hypertrophy work I had spent the past few months dong had shone through here.
The big take-away here, and what I hope to convey, is that you do not lose strength, or get weak to the extent that you likely think when you are injured/sick, life gets in the way, or you are on holidays. These numbers reflect the loss of progress resulting from a virtually six-month period of leg training neglect. So, if you are sick for a week, don’t worry, you aren’t losing much, if anything. If you are on holidays and training doesn’t make sense or you just feel like it, then don’t feel obligated. You’ll lose very little progress.
Now, it is worth noting that I am not new to lifting. I have trained consistently, besides major injuries/illnesses, for the past decade. As a result I am well adapted to moving weight by now. It is likely that someone who has put in less time, especially three years or less, will experience more of a loss in ability as a result of time away from their fitness routine, but how much this is, I am not sure.
Travelling, and recent injuries have allowed me to see how much I really do lose while doing minimal work on the road or miss training because I am hurt. Over these six tests, when averaged out, in spite of the crap past six months of training I have had, I retained 95% of my ability (across these tests). Let me repeat that…95%. I have put in long periods of high volume in the past, which has led to the numbers that I stick around, but in the past two years my volume has been reduced to about 240-300 minutes of training per week, and I am experiencing 95% of the results of when I was training closer to 15 hours per week or 900 minutes of training per week when I had regional dreams.
Unless you are competing, truly trying to win something, or getting paid to be an athlete…. do you need to add stress to your life when you get too busy to train and miss some sessions? Do you have to work-out when you are on holidays? Do you need to rush back into the gym before you are cleared of the flu? Seriously, the answer is a big NO.
Forget your burpees in the hotel room or by the pool, and if you have the flu, crush some no shame Netflix. Your body has a great memory and will not forget how to be strong if you have put in the time to become strong. Furthermore, the whopping 5% of ability I did lose, will likely be gained back in a month or two of consistent training. I am also not judging you if you do enjoy training on holidays (I do), but it’s kind of like coffee. Coffee is only an issue if you need it to function, whereas if you enjoy it each day, that is fine.
Please quiet that voice in your head telling you that you are getting weak, or losing your progress because you missed a week of workouts because you had the flu. That voice is obsessive, unhealthy, and unnecessary. I know, because I have this voice too. That voice represents a relationship with fitness that is closer to an addiction than something that adds to your quality of life and extends it. Don’t listen to it. Your body listens to your brain. If you have time away from your fitness routine, forget that voice. Instead, strengthen another inner voice which is telling you that your body is taking a break to repair, your brain is building new connections, and you will be ready to smash when you get back to your consistent training routine.
By the way, my client who was sick the week before her competition came out and PR’d her Snatch. Here is the video…. (Boom!) Looks like the flu didn’t make her lose all her strength like she thought.
Fitness should be approached as a life-long pursuit which is sustainable from adolescence into old-age. If you have this approach you can picture a week of sickness as a blip on a long timeline. If your fitness journey can be related to a long weekend hike, then an off-week, off-month, or even off-six months away represents only a step or two, or leg in that journey. And, even the best hikers have a missed step once in awhile.
Grit Human Performance