Notes on exercising while sick or tired

I was a bit sick this past week, a result of overexerting myself on various projects the previous week, and also Abby herself getting sick. We have been basically fine since Thursday, but I was feeling pretty bad Sunday through Tuesday in particular.

The question always comes up, when I am sick or just plain tired, “What should I do to recover as efficiently as possible?” After trial and error over the years, I’ve come to realize I have to do a couple of things:

It’s the exercise that gets tricky sometimes. When one is low on energy and weakened, what should one do, if anything at all? Here are some thoughts.

Why even exercise at all?

A long time ago, whenever I felt sick or tired, I would use that as a reason to just shut down and not get any exercise. I had the idea that I needed to “rest”, and any activity would only weaken me.

It turned out that being completely sedentary is not actually “rest”. It is actually quite harmful. Lying around or sitting around all the time is, even for those of us who are healthy, unnatural and damaging. The way our bodies work actually changes when we are immobile. Granted, if we are seriously, seriously ill, and cannot move, then that is reality, but if we are ill but able to move, then there is a question of what we can do that helps rather than hinders recovery.

Breaking down

I take it for granted (and from experience) that when we’re sick, we shouldn’t just push through everything we would do if we were not. The reason is that normal levels of intense exercise deliberately does some controlled breaking down of the body in order for it to adapt and grow back stronger, but if we’re weak, we may not be strong enough to withstand the breaking down.

So I assume that we want to dial down the intensity in some way while retaining restorative effects.

Walking works for me

I find that walking (if you’re able to walk) is probably the ideal way of getting circulation when not feeling up to running or lifting weights. It’s low impact, you breathe more, and you can change the pace and intensity at very fine increments at will. So, if I do nothing else, I’ll get in a walk, even if it’s just around the block.

Running sometimes doesn’t work for me

I find that it’s sometimes tricky to run when sick. The main problem is that there is a kind of threshold below which running feels inefficient to me. If you’re running a lot slower than usual, that is inefficient and increases pounding on the joints. I’d rather walk than run much slower than usual. So I haven’t run since my barefoot run outside on Saturday. Now that I’m well again, I’m quite ready to resume running. I’d rather run when I’m excited to do it and feel that it will benefit me, instead of slogging through an inefficient and possibly form-disrupting run just because I’m “supposed” to run. As Tanja Djelevic recently wrote, “To be a slave to the work out regimen, and have hardcore guilt for missing a work out, is in every way detrimental.”

That said, there are definitely times when I’ve run through a minor cold or something. It all depends. When the weather is really friendly (which it hasn’t been since real winter came immediately to Pittsburgh), it’s easy to just go out for a walk and have it turn into an easy run.

Strength training, partially

Usually, when I’m sick, I don’t feel like doing a whole lot of strength training. In fact, I’ve tested myself and when I’m sick, my pullups suffer considerably.

However, I’ve noticed that doing short bursts of “easier” exercises is quite helpful in getting the metabolism up and preventing the quick decline that happens if you just stop doing everything for too long. I do pushups every day (partially as a result of my 2013 decision to “earn” every square of chocolate I eat by first doing pushups just before eating it; as of today, I am earning my chocolate with 26 pushups). I don’t care how many I do: the point is to do something.

My Cathedral of Learning stair climb: what to do about that?

I’ve been reporting regularly on my Cathedral of Learning 36-floor stair climb regimen lately. So what happened to my routine this week when I was not feeling well?

First of all, I was supposed to do it Monday, and I was feeling queasy enough that I decided to completely bail out of it.

Second, Wednesday I was feeling much better, and decided that I wanted to do a reduced workout. I decided that after weeks of doing two repetitions, I was going to do just one. But since I was feeling on the upswing, I felt that I was strong enough to gut out doing that one repetition relatively fast (not all out fast, but pretty fast going one step at a time).

I did it the fastest I’ve done so far this year, in 7:20. That’s 42 seconds faster than my fastest time yet in any of the stair climbs I’ve done so far this year. I was quite exhausted afterwards, and lay down panting for over three minutes (yes, I let the timer keep running to see when I would be able to breathe normally again). Doing the stair climb at this level of intensity to me feels considerably harder than running an all-out mile race. Stair climbing is very different from (non-hilly) running, totally burning my quads and jacking up my heart rate way, way up (I didn’t measure it but I could feel it).

Afterwards, I felt pretty good and happy to have gotten myself out of my health slump.

Stair racing, the sport?!

By the way, here’s a great article a friend just sent me today about stair racing, the sport. I had no idea there was actually a whole worldwide professional stair racing scene!!

Check out the Empire State Building race:


Of course, it’s better to prevent getting sick or tired in the first place. Here’s a great article on having more “margin” in your life that I recently encountered. I plan to track and report on how I improve my margin in my life.


When my body is not functioning so well because of illness or fatigue, I try to figure out how to recover, and I’ve found that some types and levels of exercise are very helpful to me.

What do you do to keep in shape when you are feeling sick or tired? Do you have your own specific plan B, or do you wing it, or do you follow the regular plan anyway?

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