Racing When Sick

swimming sick

Training and sickness are unfortunately a well known combination. Extremely hard training programs can leave athletes more susceptible to the many illnesses present around us, especially from schools. And sickness can often hit at the best of times. Luckily, there’s been plenty of research on the issue of how much and how hard to train when sick. (Generally, when symptoms are relatively minor and above the neck, short workouts of low to moderate intensity won’t prolong the symptoms or make them worse. Some research has also indicated that short, high intensity workouts are ok as well.  It’s the long workouts that might make any symptoms last longer or be more severe.)

But being sick at a swim meet is a completely different animal.  Nobody wants to give up and go home. Of course, swimmers who are really sick won’t have any choice about it.  Too sick and you stay home.  Too dizzy to get on the block and you just stay lying down. Too nauseous and you just stay in the washroom.  But swimmers can race when mildly sick. Even when they feel like something the cat dragged home to show you.

But is it worth it?  Won’t the race just be painful, slow and demoralizing?

It doesn’t have to be.

Last weekend we had a really big meet for our team, and we started the meet with 4 or 5 kids coughing and sniffling.  By Sunday finals we had a handful of kids too sick to leave their house, and another bunch at the meet ready to swim but visibly sick.

Before we swam we went over 4 key things:

  • You still have to warm up. Just give yourself enough time to recover, and STAY WARM!
  • The mind always gives up before the body. Toughen your mind up for this and don’t give up. Give your body a chance to do its job.
  • Embrace the fact that this will hurt more, but the result will be all the more deserving because of that.
  • When sick, strategy matters. Always race, but don’t be in a hurry to lead the pack. Put yourself in contention and then back-end load the swim.

The results were surprisingly good.  Most of our sick ones performed at or near PBs, especially those in the shorter races such as 100 or less.  In fact one of our least experienced swimmers who looked the sickest of our bunch split his relay 100 FR 3 seconds faster than his PB.  We also had one sick guy PB his 200 BK final. Not everybody did PBs, but even the sickest had very respectable races.

This turned out to be a great life lesson for them all.  Life isn’t always fair, and you don’t always gets perfect conditions. You just need the opportunity and the guts to go for it.


2 thoughts on “Racing When Sick

  1. Good life lesson, indeed.
    And what about health risks? My own early swimming career went downhill after the pneumonia which I tried to ignore at the beginning. Incentive of being a candidate into Olympic team was very strong and I pushed myself over limits.
    As we grow older we learn to read the signals our body and mind send. Still, not always successfully. It’s much more difficult for a kid to distinguish that “mildly sick” from real trouble.
    I understand it can not be “black or white” and some kids can imitate the sickness, etc….
    Just sharing my concerns – as a grown up swimmer and father and grandfather.

    1. Excellent comment, Dimlee. Yes, there are certainly times when swimmers shouldn’t train or race. It’s much easier to observe and assess any health threat risks at practice, as that’s a consistent and known environment. Changes in training performance, attitude, physical appearance, etc should be relatively obvious. As coaches we generally know when there’s something wrong with a swimmer, and if in any doubt we tell them to go see a doctor.

      A competition is a different matter. Swimmers are generally different at a meet, and we don’t have the same benchmarks to use when comparing. I think you’re right in that the biggest risk is a swimmer who wants to push themselves despite their body needing medical help. I have had a few swimmers who I’ve had to tell not to compete, but the signs are usually obvious.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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