To run, or not to run?

My Great Race 10k bib went unused this year.  In the week leading up to the race, I came down with a cold. Nothing major – no fever, no chills, no decrease in appetite (the appetite is the key metric of how sick I am!), and only slightly lower energy than normal.
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A question I commonly get is… “Should I still work out when I’m sick?”  Given my own situation with the Great Race, I thought this is an appropriate time to answer this one!
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One of the more common philosophies when it comes to training when sick is the “above or below the neck” symptom question, which basically states that if your symptoms are mostly from the neck up (ie, congestion, stuffy nose), you may be ok to workout, but if your symptoms are below the neck (body aches, fever) you should rest.  I am completely on board with the second half of that statement.  If you’ve got the flu or something that has you down with a fever (strep throat, stomach virus), then rest… probably more than one day. It’s the first “above the neck” symptom part I’m a little wishy washy on, and I think it comes down to recognizing and respecting your own limits.
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As a health coach and someone who has a huge interest in holistic wellness, my take on this may be a little more conservative than others.  I am a huge proponent of “listen to your body.”  You should not work out or race out of obligation to your training plan or training partner/group, or to avoid the guilt of a missed workout if your body is saying “no”.  Everyone hates to see those workouts on Training Peaks turn to red (for incomplete), or to know that a workout has gone unfinished.  People worry about the impact that a missed workout (or a few) will have on their training progress.  But, more often than not, taking a day or a few off will mean a faster recovery and a faster return to normal training than if you try to push through it.  Let’s say you aren’t feeling well on Monday, so you skip Monday and Tuesday’s workouts.  There’s a good chance that you may be ready to work out again on Wednesday.  On the other hand, if you are starting to feel the chills or sore throat coming on on Monday, and push through a workout, you may end up sidelining yourself past Wednesday.
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Here’s a bit of the science behind it:  Did you know that exercise naturally increases cortisol production in your body?  It’s an evolutionary mechanism to help us deal with stressful situations, such as escaping predators or dangerous situations.  Your body doesn’t know that you are running (or biking, or cross-fitting, or whatever) by choice; it simply recognizes that you are in high activity mode and starts increasing cortisol to cope with the physical stress.  While cortisol has beneficial effects in the right doses (it is a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller), one of the downsides of cortisol is that it suppresses the immune system and its ability to fight off illness.  If your immune system is already struggling to fight off a cold, the cortisol further suppresses your immune system, which often means you’ll end up making things worse by working out.  (Another downside: if you aren’t feeling your best, you may feel sluggish or not hit your target pace/power for your workout and feel disappointed about that!)
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If you feel mostly over your cold/sickness, and you want to workout, I recommend shortening or lowering the intensity of a workout.  It’s better to test the waters with an easy, 30 minute aerobic run than a 5 mile tempo run.  One thing to be aware of when doing this:  You know how you get that post-workout endorphin blast (aka the runner’s high)?  That may kick in during or right after the workout, and you feel good – and think you are in the clear.  But a few hours later, or the next morning even, you’ll feel worse.  That’s your body’s way of saying, “Nope, I wasn’t ready to do that kind of workout.”  Maybe you don’t feel up to a long run or interval bike workout, but you DO feel like a walk around the neighborhood or a yoga class.  Both of these are a way to be active without putting the stress on your body of a hard workout.
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So, back to my decision to skip the Great Race.  I’d had a few lousy nights of sleep due to nasal congestion and coughing leading up to the race.  I felt alright on Saturday, but when my alarm went off on Sunday morning, I knew my body was saying “no”.  While I’d been looking forward to the Great Race, it wasn’t a priority race for me this year.  I’m training for my first Spartan (obstacle) race in mid-October, and my main priority right now is training for that, which requires being healthy!  The Great Race will be there next year, and the risk of pushing myself through a 10k (even if a fun pace and not a race pace) and feeling worse wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.  I turned off my alarm and snuggled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep.
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In a nutshell, it all comes back to “listen to your body”.  Athletes hate to be sick and miss workouts, but it is necessary to know your limits. Give yourself permission to miss a workout (or a few) and focus on resting so you can feel better and get back into the training routine sooner.  Ease back into your training, and don’t be afraid to shorten workouts or drop down on intensity. Working with a coach can help to guide you through training when sick, rearrange training plans due to illness, and reassure you that it’s ok to miss some training or scale back.

Sleepy September: Improve your sleep with herbal tea, magnesium and a bedtime routine

Last week, I published a post with 3 tips for improving sleep.  This week, I’m providing 3 more tips for getting more restful sleep.    Different things work for different people, so here are a few more things to help with sleep.
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Incorporate a cup of herbal or calming tea at bedtime.  Maybe you can sit and sip on some tea while you relax with a magazine, book, family/roommates, or some music.  (Please take note that your relaxing night time tea is better if not accompanied by iPad, laptop or smartphone social media, web browsing, or email checking – remember that thing about blue light I mentioned last week?).  Herbal teas will help you to sleep without a groggy feeling in the morning.  Some of my favorite bed time teas are…
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  • Chamomile (widely available, many brands)
  • Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time and Sleepy Time Extra tea
  • Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night tea
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Magnesium!  Many people today are magnesium deficient, which is bad because magnesium is needed for over 300 biochemical processes in our body.  From maintaining our muscles and bones to supporting nerve, immune and brain health, it is a much-needed nutrient!  Magnesium is also known to be a calming nutrient and can help to relax you before bed.  How can you incorporate it?
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Magnesium is readily absorbed through the skin, so one of the cheapest options is to buy a bag of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) at your drug store or grocery store (around here, it’s about $6 for a 6 pound bag, which will last you awhile!).  Dump 2 cups of epsom salts in a warm bath, sit back, and relax for 20 minutes (or longer if you’d like!).  If you’re really looking to go the extra mile, add a few drops of lavender essential oil, some relaxing music and/or candles.
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Magnesium can also be taken orally.  (Remember: I always recommend that you check with your doctor before starting a new supplement.)  I recommend Magnesium glycinate or Magnesium malate for best absorption- these will be more expensive but have much better absorption rates than the cheaper forms.  Most magnesium supplements sold in drug stores/grocery stores are magnesium oxide, which has a very low absorbance by the body (and is subsequently the cheapest).  Magnesium Citrate is found in drink mixes like Natural Calm, which you drink before bed.  (A small warning about this one:  Magnesium citrate also acts on the digestive system, and too much may lead to diarrhea in sensitive individuals… So, you may want to start at a smaller amount for this and work your way up to recommended dose.)
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My last recommendation for today is to develop a bedtime routine for yourself.  People are creatures of habit, and having a regular routine to follow at bedtime can improve sleep.  This can be as simple as setting out your clothes (and kids’ clothes, school bags, etc) the night before, washing face / taking a shower or bath, tucking kids in, making a cup of herbal tea and reading, and turning off the light at about the same time every night.  Setting a regular bedtime for yourself and sticking with it as consistently as you can is beneficial to maintaining good circadian rhythms.  Other things to incorporate into your bedtime routine may be some journaling (more on that in upcoming posts), meditation or restorative/relaxing yoga.  By doing the same thing every night, you’re training your body that it is time to go to sleep at a certain time.  Somewhere in that bedtime routine, you may also want to set a time when the cell phone gets turned to silent/off or put into “do not disturb” mode (which I think is available on most phones, to only let approved ’emergency’ contacts get through between certain times??).
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Have you tried any of these things?  If so, I’d love to hear how they worked for you!

Sleepy September: 3 Tips for Restful Sleep

 

Too long since you’ve slept like a baby?

I’m going to start off this blog and blog series with a very blunt observation:  Not enough people (even me, sometimes!) prioritize routinely getting a good night’s rest.  Everyone is busy, and sleep seems to be the thing that is often compromised.

Did you know that being sleep-deprived can decrease your insulin sensitivity?  If you’re trying to lose weight, you could be eating the perfect diet and exercising the right way for your fitness level and goals, but if you’re sleep-deprived, hitting or maintaining your weight loss target will be difficult.  Not only does sleep mess with your insulin sensitivity, but it also increases cortisol production. Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that, when produced in excess, leads to weight gain around the hips and belly.  And for the athletes out there… sleep is when your body releases growth hormone to repair and rebuild your body.  If you’re not getting enough sleep when piling on the training, or you aren’t getting enough good quality sleep, you could be compromising your performance.
Here are my top 3 tips for improving sleep:
  • Avoid the blue light of computers, TVs, iPads, and smartphones for at least an hour before going to bed.  The blue light from these devices is the same blue light spectrum of the morning sky: it invokes the cortisol response.  (Crash course in cortisol, until I blog more about it in October:  In the morning, this is ok to have this response to using computers/phones, since our cortisol levels should be highest in the morning to wake us up and prepare us for the day ahead.)  But cortisol and melatonin- the sleep hormone-  are counter-regulatory hormones, meaning that when one is high, the other must be low.  So if you’re snuggling under the covers before bed with the iPad, the increased cortisol levels from the blue light will suppress melatonin, making it difficult to get a quality night of sleep.  Even if you feel like you don’t have issues falling asleep or staying asleep despite screen time prior to bed, you may not be getting the most deep and restful sleep as possible.  If you’re waking up and not feeling rested, try turning off devices a little earlier and see if you notice a difference. If you must be on your computer/phone prior to bed time, consider using the NightTime settings (Apple products) or downloading f.lux to adjust screen settings in the evening to decrease the blue light.
  • Make your bedroom is as dark as possible.  If there’s any light coming in from the outside – or if you’ve got lights glowing from various devices plugged in – that is enough to disrupt your body from getting optimal sleep.  Your eyes are closed so you don’t see the light, but your skin has photo-receptors that sense the light (even that little bit coming in through the slats of your blinds or from the power light on your electronics), and can prevent you from getting the most restful sleep possible.
  • Cut off the caffeine earlier.  Everybody metabolizes caffeine at a different rate.  I LOVE my morning cup of coffee… but sadly, I’m sensitive to caffeine and I’ve noticed that even a small cup after lunch leads to sleep troubles.  Just like I mentioned above with using electronic devices before bed:  you may be able to fall asleep easily enough, but your sleep may not be as restful as it could be.  Here’s a simple experiment:  Try avoiding caffeine after 12pm and see if you notice a difference in your sleep. If the idea of skipping a post-lunch or mid-afternoon coffee sounds unfathomable, then try tapering the amount; move your coffee to one hour earlier; or drink green tea instead, which will give you a gentler boost.
Give these things a try, and let me know if you notice any changes!  I’ll be continuing to talk about sleep tips and other ways to improve quality of sleep throughout September, so stay tuned.