THE ARTICLE IN SHORT
Recovering from an illness and returning to training is something in between science and art. There are variables which you can measure and control (for example with the help of an Oura Ring) but to decide whether or not you feel good enough for a run, is something I don't seem to manage. You either feel it or just go with trial and error. I was on the side of error quite a lot, which meant I didn't recover from the sickness that took me out of training in the first place. Sometimes it even turned out worse. By now I can burn it down to a few mistakes I make when in the process of recovering from illness.
After years of going through similar cycles I have recognized a pattern which leads to a lack of recovery after being ill. There are certain things I’m doing which negatively effect the regeneration of my health and immune system and I would like to share this list on Minimalist Biohacker.
STARTING WITH IMPULSES TOO EARLY
I once visited a doctor after a fall-back into illness (angina), fed up with not getting back to 100% performance. I also asked him about taking cold-showers in order to strengthen the immune system, after learning about Wim Hof. The doctor responded with an interesting perspective: A cold shower is an impulse. Same as with sports, giving this kind of impulse to your body will trigger a reaction. Your body receives the impulse in the form of a cold shower, gets shocked, recovers and makes certain adaptations to be better prepared for the next cold exposure. Same as in sports, it’s important to give your body enough time to recover and adapt to the impulse of cold.
So what’s the deal? Training is an impulse. A cold shower is an impulse. Going to the sauna is an impulse. You get the idea? I was always focused on sport as impulse for the body, looking out only for my body not to over-train in terms of muscle soreness etc. But it’s also possible to over stress the body by placing different kinds of impulses too close to each other. I know it’s extremely hard to hold back if you are driven and eager to increase your performance. It often feels like being weak or giving up. However a steady increase of your performance is better than peaks of very high stress followed by a total drop because of illness.
I try to see it this way: After being sick, give your body one week to fully recover. Take that recovery as serious as your training. Give yourself time to rest, feed your body the things it requires and start with low intensity training when you feel the need. You will still be able to reach your pre-illness performance in a very short period of time afterwards.
When you haven’t recovered completely after an illness, be kind to your body and reduce the impulses. Lower the intensity or frequency of your impulses. Take it easier on your workouts and don’t do extreme cold exposure. I know how hard it is, as I myself am the worst example of a patient recovery practitioner.
NOT LISTENING TO MY BODY
I learned to follow rules about what is best for my body in terms of how much to drink, what to eat, when and how much to move etc. What I often lack is empathy for myself. Especially when we are very busy and have implemented strong routines which help us to manage the day and reduce decision fatigue, we shut out external signals. It’s like the blinkers of horses that avoid outside distraction so the horse is only focused on the way ahead. We do the same by blindly sticking to rules instead of stopping for a moment to assess the situation and respond.
It’s one of the most important skills and something I still have to learn, even though the sequence is always the same and practically applies to problem solving in all areas of life:
All of these steps are important but we can drastically increase the hit rate (in terms of positive versus negative decisions) when we spend more time analyzing and collecting information. Instead of strictly sticking to a plan which has been created in a different set of influencing factors, I try to be more flexible. For example I collect my body data with an Oura Ring, interpret the data and try to make better decisions with the knowledge I have gained. If my Readiness Score is low and I feel my muscles aching, it's a signal I need to recover a bit more. The hard part again is that it feels like slacking off, so I’ll trick myself by treating it as active recovery, which I can also push.
It’s so cliché but listen to your body. Drink when you are thirsty, eat when you are hungry, move when you are feeling the urge and the excess energy, rest when you are tired. Don’t stick to your schedule like it’s the holy bible. Be flexible, adapt and respond to what is needed in the moment. My Oura Ring has helped me a lot in actually looking at data and interpreting the signals of my body.
FALLING INTO FOOD TRAPS
Although it's very important to listen to your body (which means giving it what it wants sometimes), very often I’ll be more prone to making the wrong choices when I’m not feeling well. No matter if it’s the casual beer(s) with friends or snacking away on the sofa, saying no to things is even harder when I'm not fully functional. Although you should be kinder to yourself when ill or on the way to recover, some things should be avoided:
• Lots of alcohol
• Lots of sugar in the form of soft drinks or sweets
• Lots of caffeine
In order to not contradict the point mentioned before and after, let me suggest the following perspective: It’s not about restricting yourself too much but rather about using the meals you have to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to recover. That is good fats, good carbohydrates, the right amount of protein (enough to support your body but not too much so inflammation is kept low), fibers, vitamins, minerals, etc.
As long as you are getting the most important building blocks your body needs to recover, you’re good. The extra dessert won’t hurt you.
As always the amount decides whether it’s healthy or poisonous. Too much sugar will trigger your body into taking counter-measures (e.g. insulin output) putting more stress on your system. Too much caffeine might increase your cortisol levels. In both examples you would be putting more pressure on your already busy body. With alcohol it is even easier to figure out where the problem lies. In all those cases, your body will prioritize the breakdown of the “poisonous” substances over its recovery process.
Get yourself good meals three times a day when in recovery-mode after an illness and try to avoid things which put additional pressure on your system. Put on hold any practice that is putting stress on yourself (e.g. fasting, caloric restriction,...) and just stay a bit more balanced. Don’t go extreme on either side. Get good things into your body and then do what feels right.
While the other factors are related to something you can „do“, this one is related to what you think and what it does to your recovery. There are several studies showing that the mind has extraordinary power over our lives and our bodies. We can actually get sick from thinking ourselves into it. I’m convinced I’m falling into this trap.
With a long-term history of recurring illnesses, I’m afraid I’m focusing heavily on “being sick” once my throat starts to get sore and I’m not feeling well. My mind is focused on the symptoms instead of the cure. Once I received medication and the symptoms start to disappear, I’m already focusing on not getting sick again. I’m afraid of the fallbacks, which I’ve regularly experienced even when adhering strictly to the doctors orders. It’s this feeling of being power-less and out of control.. I’m currently diving into the topic of mindset and health so there will be an article soon about how to get that right. Until then I can only document that I’m already aware of my negative mindset. It's certainly getting in the way when it comes to faster recovery from illness. I want to get everything right, thereby stressing myself out even further.
Accept the fact that it got you, even though it’s hard if you are sticking to a healthy diet etc. Even the hardest guys get sick once in a while. See the positive sides like having to take time to recover. Your body shows you it’s time to slow down. Otherwise it would burn out. Take the time to plan head, look forward to what you will do once your back on track and get some joy of the small things while you’re sick.
When recovering from illness, the speed and success of recovery seems to be heavily influenced by my mindset. It's my attitude of wanting things NOW, not having the patience to wait things out. It's my attitude of not being kind to myself and my body, when it's clearly in need of a break. It's my attitude that rest is weakness, going against the discipline I have cultivated over many years of training. It's my fear of getting sick again, focusing on the symptoms and the negative things. Those mental models didn't help in recovering, they hinder me. So what to do instead? I'm going to:
- Think of a break after illness as a needed recovery period in which I actually grow stronger
- Focus on the positive side of things, enjoying the part of life that comes a bit too short in the busy times of work and training
- Listen to my body or as it seems I can't: Use technology in the form of tracking devices to look at my body's status