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How to Adjust Training when Sick | Bryan Dermody

"How should I adjust my training during a peak if I get sick?"

A: I am going to assume two things in answering this question:

  1. That the athlete in question is peaking for a contest and not simply peaking performance for testing purposes.
  2. That the athlete in question is competing in a strength sport such as powerlifting.

There are essentially three factors to address with this question. First, should the athlete even train while sick? The answer is, it depends. If the sickness includes symptoms such as body aches, fever, or vomiting (as with the flu), the best decision may be to temporarily cease training and allow the body to heal. Training with these symptoms most often makes these symptoms worse and extends the duration of the sickness. Unfortunately, this option may include not competing, unless the athlete is ok with competing in a very detrained, less than optimal physical state. On the other hand, if the sickness includes symptoms such as a cough, runny nose, or sore throat (as with the common cold), the best option may be to train through the sickness. Training with sicknesses such as the common cold has not only been shown to not adversely effect the human body, but it has also shown to help the sickness by promoting the release and circulation of various nutrients that actually help heal the sickness. Of course, training may still have to be adjusted when training through sickness (see below for suggestions on this).

Secondly, even when training through sickness, adjustments to training may need to be made. There is no black and white answer to this element of our answer because individuals vary in many ways (training maturity, mental toughness, physical toughness, severity of sickness, etc.). The following three ways to adjust training should be considered:

  • Adjusting frequency (i.e. days of training per week): do not be afraid to reduce the frequency of training during a peaking phase. People are often hesitant to do this because they are afraid that they will lose fitness. This is almost never the case. It is likely the athlete is about ready for a de-load week anyway with all of the accumulated training volume from the weeks leading up to the peaking phase. Additionally, the athlete should not feel like taking some movements out of the program in order to reduce training frequency is the end of the world. This is why it is important for the athlete to have a very good idea of the priority of movements in the training program. The priority of movements should look something like this:
    • Competition squat, bench press, deadlift – most important
    • Accessory (i.e. front squat, close grip bench press, Romanian deadlift)
    • Auxiliary (i.e. Bulgarian squat, triceps extension, reverse hypers) – least important

During a peaking phase an athlete is very close to a competition. Thus, the greatest amount of training time should be spent on the competition lifts. Not only should the athlete not be afraid to remove some accessory and auxiliary movements from the program in order to reduce training frequency while sick, but these categories of movements should take up very little training time in any case during a peaking phase.

  • Adjusting training volume: Use the Pareto principle here. Applied to powerlifting this principle would state that 80% of training results would come from 20% of all possible training movements. In other words, put your training time in on the competition lifts, and if necessary while sick, drop all other movements.
  • Adjusting training intensity: There are primarily two ways to adjust training. The first (and most effective) way is to auto-regulate your training. Since strength may drop slightly while sick the best way to regulate your intensity is to use a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale, rather than percentages based on training 1-RM’s to determine training intensity. While sick 90% of training 1-RM may not feel like 90%. Due to a temporary drop in strength while sick, it may actually feel more like 93-95%. The solution to this situation is to assign an RPE number to each training set. Instead of just blindly putting 90% of 1-RM on the bar and executing the set no matter how the weight feels, progress in weight each set until you reach a weight that feels like 90% (i.e. 8-8.5RPE). To learn more about RPE training visit The other way to adjust training intensity is to select movements that are very close to the competition lifts, but less demanding on the neuromuscular and skeletal system. For example, perform belt squats in place of back squats.

Finally, nutrition is even more important when training while sick. The general rule here is: feed a cold, but starve a flu. No matter the sickness try to intake as much fluid and electrolytes possible. It is also important to consume antioxidants, such as zinc and vitamin C, that boost immune system function.

  Bryan Dermody, Powerlifter & Former Strength & Conditioning Coach

Posted on December 4, 2017


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