Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 5, Number 6: August 30, 1999


[Based on the article: Boehler, A. E. (May, 1999) Exercise: in sickness and health? HealthGate® Data Corp.]

Regular swimming training can contribute to the health of an individual. However, when a swimmer is ill, or has symptoms that are precursors of disease, the question of training or not arises. What are the best responses to common situations? The following are prudent reactions.

A swimmer wakes up sneezing, coughing, and generally feeling lousy. The alarm has sounded and the swimmer registers that it is not a good idea to rise and go and train. However, the guilt of missing practice, and incurring varying stages of wrath from a coach, usually forces the athlete to go through the motions of training. Is that a good choice?

Illness and/or disease stress the body and the immune system. Extensive exercise also stresses the body. Too much stress negatively affects the body and its systems. It can generally be concluded that no benefit accrues from training when stress is excessive. That tenet should be the basis of coaching decisions when illness is involved. Indeed, too much swimming training decreases the protection of the immune system and consequently, illness occurs because of that increased susceptibility to disease. To train further is dangerous.

Do not be afraid to rest

Many swimming coaches believe that if a swimmer misses a training session that swimmer's career, or immediate future performances, are irreparably harmed.

Missing a session when the body is not able to derive benefit from any training is not a liability. Missing a week to recover from an illness is not likely to affect swimming performance in any drastic way. If a disease was exacerbated by excessive exercise stress, that is training continued while ill, an absence would actually benefit performance.

Only when absences are of more than one week should one consider that training benefits might be lost. The older the swimmer, the longer he/she can be out of the water before detraining occurs. For periods of up to three weeks in mature swimmers and two weeks in age-group swimmers, retraining to pre-illness levels is equal to the length of time spent out of the water. For short periods, the one-to-one ratio of detraining-to-retraining is a useful rule-of-thumb.

When swimmers' performances are affected very little by a coach's program, that is, the coach does not schedule activities that accurately affect performance, then absences are less drastic on performance. Most coaches believe that it is their "coaching" that produces performance improvements in swimmers. More often than not, that is a false belief. Since many swimmers' performances do not improve, or even deteriorate, after receiving coaching, a coach has to take responsibility for failures as well as improvements before their effect should even be considered. Many swimmers go away for extended vacations with families only to return swimming as well as or even better than when they left. This occurs often with age-group swimmers where annual performance improvements are due more to maturation than coaching. Coaches' claims about the importance of their training have to be objectively verified before a swimmer's health is placed at risk.

Neuroses over occasional absences are unwarranted. The appropriate coping behavior is to view such times as "opportunities for the body to repair and restore itself."

Therefore, if a swimmer has a stuffy or runny nose, achiness, and/or general cold symptoms encourage them to stay home and not exercise. If training is mandatory, a less-than-usual training load is warranted.

Swimming when feeling unwell

While regular exercise can actually boost immunity, exercising when ill will not help an athlete get better any faster. Exercising moderately with a cold usually does not make the disease worse nor does it speed recovery. It does not produce any beneficial training effect either. Therefore, the preferred alternative is to miss training and get rid of a short-term illness. Any urge in the athlete or urging from a coach to train harder when "mildly ill" has no benefit and can even make the athlete sicker.

If an athlete has recently emerging symptoms of achiness, extreme fatigue, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, severe sore throat, or anything else that is flu-like the best alternative is to miss training.

Swimming when sick

If a swimmer has symptoms of illness that make him/her want to rest/sleep instead of getting out of bed, exercising is inadvisable. When a disease is infectious, for example the 'flu', exercising can produce complications, which lowers immunity further. To train under such a state of ill-health threatens the athlete's health further and also raises the possibility of spreading the disease, something which should be avoided in sporting environments.

If an athlete has symptoms of coughing, any illness involving the chest and lungs (e.g., bronchitis), or an infection, then passive rest rather than training exercise is warranted.

Swimming with acute fatigue or an illness?

Excessive exercise fatigue, particularly that which accrues over several days, produces symptoms that often suggest some illness. While these symptoms are "worse than usual" when compared to their normal state, they are not pathological and should signal to the coach/parent/athlete that either a reduced load in or brief rest from training is warranted.

There are many symptoms of excessive exercise stress. The number of symptoms that are recognized as indicating "overreaching" or "overtraining", terms used to describe short or long-term exercise fatigue, vary depending upon the individual. Those symptoms include social, psychological, and performance variables, some of them not being associated with any disease.

The following is a list of valid symptoms of excessive exercise fatigue. When these symptoms are worse than usual, they suggest the possibility of exercise fatigue.

Muscle pains, techniques, tiredness, need for a rest, land-training exercises, boredom, recovery time, irritability, weight, throat, internal feelings, unexplained aches, technique strength, enough sleep, between sessions recovery, general weakness, interest, arguments, skin rashes, congestion, training effort, temper, swellings, likability, running nose.

If exercise-stress symptoms exist then the appropriate training response is to reduce the training overload. For swimming, this is probably best achieved by reducing the number of training sessions, and therefore increasing the opportunity for rest, rather than reducing the load of still too numerous training sessions.

Swimming with a headache

Headaches are caused by many events, a common one being life-style stress or tension. Exercise of an aerobic nature is a great stress-reducer and so training might be therapeutic. However, when a headache is associated with other disease-suggesting symptoms (e.g., fever, coughing, sore throat, achiness) then exercising is not warranted.

If a headache is the only symptom then mild exercise might help alleviate pain.


The discussion above is purely a set of general guidelines. Before a coach, swimmer, or parent tries to play "doctor," it is best to err on the side of caution and seek judgments that are more authoritative on a swimmer's status.

Hydration is more important than ever when exercising under any degree of sickness or emerging illness.

When returning to training after recovering from illness, despite feeling better than during the period of illness, a swimmer should be gradually reintroduced to exercise. The assumption of heavy training stress immediately upon returning to the pool has the potential to reignite the disease if recovery has not been total. Harder training cannot accelerate recovery and retraining. It will occur depending upon the attributes of the swimmer.

After a child has been ill and returns to the swimming pool for organized training, parents should ask the coach the following:

1. "How long will it be before my child returns to the normal training load and intensity?"

2. "Will you immediately remove my child from the pool if any of the following symptoms occur ---------?"

After the first training session and for a period that at least equals the duration of the recent illness the swimmer should be monitored for a reoccurrence of symptoms a minimum of twice daily.

With mature swimmers, the above concerns should be heeded by self-monitoring as objectively as possible.

Little to no benefits are derived from training while ill or diseased. If anything, a greater threat will occur despite being "mentally tough," coerced by a coach, or urged by misinformed but well-meaning teammates.

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