Illness and injury breaks – Do we ever really learn?

I did a 17k pool swim with Gábor at the end of April. It went fine but the next day I developed a head-cold. I doubt they were related as I’ve never been sick after a long pool swim previously and I’ve done quite a few over the past three years, but it was co-incidental, I think.

Inhalers_MG_3667-resized-resizedI’ve mentioned previously that I have asthma, which could be considered mild in that I have a generally good understanding and control of it and the triggers, and make sure to use a steroid preventer while pool training. I very rarely get a head-cold, maybe once a year. Not so mild however  should an asthma attack develop. Like many asthmatics (I hate that word, it leads people to make incorrect assumptions), a head-cold or ‘flu may lead to a bacterial chest infection, which always signals trouble for those with asthma. This inevitably means a drop in lung function and aerobic capacity, and therefore swimming capability. And I did indeed develop a chest infection within three days of the head-cold. A course of antibiotics swiftly followed, I recognise the symptoms by now and don’t hesitate. Swimming was out for over a week. But when I returned the first day, I felt fine. However I deteriorated again within a few days, my lungs feeling like they were full of broken glass.

The symptom for me while swimming is always first a light tickle in my throat, then a mild cough, which will increase in intensity and urgency as I swim further and longer, until I am coughing underwater and struggling to take in enough air to breathe. It’s always a losing battle so I’m better off to just stop. I almost never do this in time for some stupid reason.

The next two weeks were typified by feeling recovered, going to the pool and then deteriorating in the next day or two and then having to break again. it also led to a second course of antibiotics and oral steroids.

This isn’t to share my medical history but is just a long intro to the short lesson that like a lot of people used to training, and maybe especially swimmers, the thing I often struggle the most with, is taking a necessary break for illness or injury. Whereas at other times when I am actually healthy, I might not feel like training at all.

I have gotten used to both training hard and needing and taking weekly rest breaks. I think rest breaks are the most difficult thing for athletes to learn and taking breaks because of illness and injury, like on this occasion, are the second most difficult. (Overtraining is a whole other subject, and one that is too often invoked). I took my initial enforced break because I actually couldn’t swim. I had thought I got the timing right of returning but when I did return and that didn’t go well, that’s when I made the mistake trying to continue training. At that point, it was difficult to know how much more time to take on the second or subsequent break and consequently I probably prolonged my recovery. I know I lost at least 60,000 metres from my target over the course of those three and a half weeks, which is how long it took before I was sure I was recovered and could start swimming properly again.

And then when I could swim again, my conditioning felt like it had reverted to that of early winter. Not really because of the break, but more because of the deterioration in lung capacity. And therefore needing to repeat all the winter work required to get fit once again, not a pleasant prospect.

One of the reasons we struggle to take a break is because it’s tough to look at what training you’ve already completed and know that you are going to lose some or maybe even a lot of your gains. I don’t think I have any particular advice here, just that even with experience, getting the timing right can be difficult as illnesses can take individual recovery trajectories and it’s sometimes very difficult to estimate the time off and the recuperation necessary.

That’s the thing isn’t it? We all keep making mistakes, and we all keep learning.

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4 thoughts on “Illness and injury breaks – Do we ever really learn?”

  1. The timing of this post is impeccable. I picked up a bit of a cold last week but stubbornly still went to Dover for my training weekend. Now I am feeling it and am picking up my antibiotics this afternoon. I was going to swim tonight but now you’ve convinced me to give it a few days…

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