O Bendy Gymster: On Working Out When Sick

I have to admit, it hasn’t been a great year for illness. When I look at the timeline, it’s fairly clear that it correlates very tightly with (1) high levels of stress and (2) an unprecedented level of seasonal depression (hurrah, seasonal affective disorder), which also leads back to (1).

This means that my hefty workout schedule has been interrupted a few times, and I’ve learned a few things from this.

There’s a lot of online advice about when it’s okay to work out when you’re not well, and how much it’s okay to do, and a lot of that advice boils down to whether you’re going to infect people or not (an important consideration), what kind of illness you have, and how you actually feel when it comes down to it. The obvious basic idea is: don’t be really stupid about it, but of course what that means is going to vary.

I learned that, when I took time off from exercise completely, I started to hurt. Muscles tightened. Joints ached. Everything got harder. When I finally got better, and went back to gym, and started doing physio exercises again, everything felt more difficult and wrong. If I went back into things too fast, like running, I’d injure myself. Now, that’s not surprising – it’s generally recommended you ease back into any exercise routine after a break. It’s more that my reaction was more extreme than most. I need to really ease in.

I need to go from running half an hour continuously back down to five minute intervals. Ugh.

This is because hypermobility is a cruel mistress, and muscles that you’ve worked hard to recruit and activate go to sleep again with very little encouragement. In a minor sense, I need to re-teach my body how to move properly after every break.

I definitely need to take the time to get my muscles to activate and tighten again, because, as I’ve said elsewhere, my ligaments don’t hold my joints in place sufficiently. I need muscle tension (tonus) to do it. If my muscles slack off, I get too bendy, I lose good co-ordination, and then I end up getting an injury, which means more recovery time and more muscle slackness. Nasty cycle.

This means I haven’t made the sort of progress in my fitness that I had hoped to by this point in the year. While my lifts and my running have improved, it’s been very much a saw-toothed progression, and given how hard I work at it, that’s been genuinely frustrating (although I do try to regularly remind myself that any progress is progress, no matter how small).

So over the last two illnesses (ugh, in a month. See earlier comments re: stress), I tried a new plan. Unless I was too sick to stand up, I would very gently mosey through a minimum number of physio exercises.

This worked very well! It meant that when I was well enough to get back to the gym, I didn’t have to reduce volume or intensity very much at all (slight consideration due to the fact that I was on antibiotics so large they would make a donkey pause for thought and a very large glass of water indeed).

But then I got sick again. And physio exercises helped (once I got past the “too dizzy to stand up” phase, which lasted a day or so), but there was a catch.

It was a nasty, flu-like illness, and among the laundry list of symptoms was what I will euphemistically refer to as “gut involvement.”

This meant that, when I wasn’t dizzy or feverish any more (when the fever finally broke and I got to have the magical, wonderful, amazing, glorious post-feverish shower), my core hurt.

And it really hurt. My abdominal muscles had been abused. It felt like I’d spent several hours doing continuous planks and crunches. It was nasty. And it was definitely muscle pain: severe, knifing muscle pain. Every time I sat up from a sitting position, or stood. I worked out a way to half-roll out of bed that would minimise core involvement in that movement.

Most of my physio exercises have a significant amount of core involvement. That’s just part of the management plan for hypermobility – part of posture repair and spine support (yes, my vertebral joints are bendy too). I ran through the workout in my head and figured out I could do… stretches.

That was it.

But I wasn’t as sick. I was definitely in the recovery phase. I tired easily. I was once again a card-carrying citizen of Planet Snot (although there wasn’t much, relatively speaking). My throat ached a bit.

I had enough energy to move and I desperately wanted to. I needed my muscles to activate, because if I didn’t, my body would fall apart before I would have time to get back to gym, and everything would just ache more. I was desperate to avoid the inevitable joint and back pain I get from enforced periods of inactivity, and to be fair, I was also desperate to get out of the house.

So I did something that – apparently – looked a little insane.

For most of my immediate social circle, my gymster habits are considered something of a personal eccentric quirk. For some, the fact that I actively enjoy exercise for its own sake is genuinely mystifying. Occasionally, I’m affectionately referred to as a bit insane for these habits and preferences, and it doesn’t bother me. I feel the same way about people who don’t like cheese (weirdos).

Apparently, going for a very sedate 9km walk when one is under the weather is considered very odd indeed. Following it up with another 8km walk two days later is much the same.

But odd or not, it had definite benefits. I was rugged up tightly, and because I was walking instead of running, it meant I had opportunity to explore trails and paths I don’t usually take. I got to wander up and down various tracks. I saw a herd of about twenty or so kangaroos bounce across my path, less than five metres in front of me.

Roos on parade

Pretty roos all in a row (there were more, but I’m not much of a wildlife photographer).

I looked out over the Sunset Track (after one hell of a climb – that is a steep one).

IMG_1805

View from the Sunset Track. Does not show steep hill (felt like a gravel cliff face!).

For the third walk, I went up to the rainforest – the path is less than ten minutes drive from my house – and took a bushwalk.

IMG_1808

Sherbrooke Forest. Robin Hood nowhere in sight.

Not only did I get to explore, but it also had the desired effect of keeping my leg muscles active and keeping me moving while my poor abused abdominal muscles recovered from their trauma. My joints stayed tight and supported instead of loosening and aching; and when my core recovered and my illness dissipated enough for me to return to gym, it was all back to normal. I could even do my half hour run without having to drop back to intervals.

So yes, sometimes it looks odd when someone exercises through an illness. It looks obsessive, and since exercise disorders are a real thing, it can look worrying. Concern is appreciated for the intent, don’t get me wrong, and I am known for pushing through obstacles sometimes when it might be easier to take a step back; but I don’t apply that to exercise. My body is just too breakable. I treat it like glass.

Alright, fairly tough glass that needs to be thrown around a bit to temper it for the long haul – but glass nonetheless.

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