After living through the COVID era, we are all acutely aware of how getting sick can put you back mentally and physically. There’s no sugarcoating it – getting sick sucks. Dealing with physical symptoms, missing out on things that were planned and taking the time to recover doesn’t feel good.
Illness is an aspect of this human experience that is challenging and can test the edges of our patience and kindness towards ourselves and the world.
Perhaps the most challenging part of being sick is what comes up mentally and emotionally. The negative thought patterns and stories that can plague our mental landscape are more likely to strike when the body is under stress and we are less able to recognize and defend against them when we are in a weakened state.
Not only that, but in a culture that often values productivity over all else, many of us struggle with the “lost time” and sense that we have gone backwards when illness strikes. When we are training for an event or simply committed to our movement goals, getting sick feels like a huge setback. So, not only are we dealing with feeling crappy, but we often get a double whammy of our minds beating us up or stressing us out on top of the physical symptoms.
Part of this discordance is that we envision that the people we admire are on a linear trajectory to success. We see people around us reaching their goals of physical fitness, financial success or relationship status (or any other areas to which we compare ourselves) and we imagine them meeting milestone after milestone without having any insight into the setbacks that they have experienced on their path.
Essentially, we compare our reality to their highlight reel. But we know everyone has setbacks and every successful person has had a winding path to get where they are that assuredly has be fraught with ups and downs.
Of course, there is truth to the fact that when you take time off, your body does lose physical fitness. When your body goes through an illness event, you will have to recover and will potentially have to restart with a lower load than you were able to perform before you got sick. Depending on how sick you get, you may genuinely lose foundational strength or cardiovascular vigor and will have a hill to climb to get back to where you were.
I want to remind you that this is all normal.
Getting sick, losing and regaining fitness, having setbacks and having to begin again is par for the course. No one just keeps getting stronger and stronger with no dips, because that isn’t how it works. Challenges that require us to slow down are an essential part of the cycle of growth.
That being said, there are things you can do to take advantage of these pauses and encourage your body to recover with strength and flexibility.
Here are six steps to recover from illness without beating yourself up.
1. Stop comparing yourself to others and accept the experience you are in
The first and most critical step to effective recovery is to get off of your own back. You are sick and it is okay. No amount of wishing it were different, getting mad at yourself for not being stronger or worrying about how much time you are losing in the gym is going to change the fact that there is a pathogen that your body needs to deal with.
You didn’t do anything wrong; getting sick is a normal part of life. Practice self-compassion.
Mental stress is stress in the body.
When you let your mind run away with negative stories about being sick, you are creating biochemical stress in the body that actually makes it harder for your immune system to fight the enemy. Beating yourself up for being sick is not helping you feel well mentally and it also isn’t helping your body be cared for and supported in getting healthy.
That being said, it can be helpful to mindfully consider if there were factors that led to the illness with acceptance and self-kindness. Have you been wearing yourself thin? Have you been eating junk? Have you been neglecting sleep? What aspects of your health haven’t felt tended to or bolstered recently?
Considering what may have made you more susceptible with self-compassion can be a great step in using the illness as a learning experience. You are signaling to yourself that you are willing to listen and learn from your somatic experiences and you can take that information to help you maintain health in the future.
2. Listen to your body and rest as much as needed
With greater acceptance and kindness towards your current ailments, you create space to listen to what your body needs and, subsequently, the ability to respond to your unique experience.
I want you to practice honoring and listening to your own bodily experience, rather than looking outside of yourself to find the answers on how to get better.
Of course, it can be super helpful and even necessary to get the medication, supplements or treatments that you need, but only you can feel the somatic experience of your body. Only you can learn your body’s signals and respond with attention to them.
For most illnesses, there isn’t some prescribed time to rest and then you are good to go. We want to have those types of answers, but the truth is that you have to learn to listen. You have to be willing to hear when you body needs rest and head that call. And you have to learn to recognize what it feels like when the body is ready to move again.
So, before we begin talking about how to get back in shape, remember to listen intently to your body’s signals and to rest, as much as needed. Keep coming back acceptance and kindness. Many of us will hear the inner critic get loud when we rest – “You’re lazy. You’re fine. Oh, c’mon, time to move on.” – so your practice is to continue recognizing that it is okay that you are sick, being kind to yourself and accepting wherever you are without judgment.
3. When you are ready to move, start slow
At some point during your illness, your energy will turn. No, you may not feel normal or back to baseline, but there will be a sense that it would feel good to move your body.
At this point, start slow. We often mentally are ready to move before our body is 100%. Your goal is NOT to go back to whatever training you were doing right before you got sick.
You may feel like if you jump right back into it, you won’t lose as much fitness, but the reality is that you are more likely to set yourself back, have to miss following workouts and prolong the illness.
It is much better to rest for a bit longer and take it slow, than send your body on the roller coaster of starting to get better and then knocking yourself back again.
A great way to begin moving again and gauge your energy levels is walking. Again, start small – go for a short walk around your neighborhood and see how you feel. Without judgment, practice listening to how the walk impacted your body. Did you feel run down? Did you immediately have to get back into bed and sleep when you returned? Or did you feel appropriately challenged, calm and like you didn’t go backwards?
Practice not engaging with the drama of the mind that will stir you into being unclear, saying you don’t know how you feel or wondering if you should do more or less. If you practice complete acceptance that wherever you are at is simply where you are at, then interpreting the body’s signals will become much easier.
4. Start with strength & mobility
When it does feel like time to genuinely start challenging the body again, start with strength and mobility, which has a less taxing effect on the energy system than cardiovascular exercise.
If you have been really sick, you might start with strength exercises on the floor, where the body is more supported. For example, begin with floor bridges, leg lifts, bicycles and other exercises where much of your weight is supported and your head isn’t above your heart.
You might begin with simple yoga poses like child’s pose, downward dog, low lunges, supported side plank or anything else where your body has multiple support points on the floor.
Focus on mobility by opening up the shoulders, hips and other joints and stretching major muscle groups.Your body has likely been stagnant, so focus on the concept of moving the body, rather than “working out”. You are waking up the body again, increasing blood flow and preparing yourself to begin harder exercises again.
Start slow and listen. Give yourself total permission to not move into challenging, full body exercises right away, but rather be in the exploration of your body.
When you authentically feel ready, then you can start to include more challenging strength exercises. You might feel ready when you notice that the floor exercises are not having a negative impact on your energy or worsening symptoms and you are starting to crave more challenge.
5. Once you have rebuilt your foundation, start to include cardio
Cardiovascular exercises, like running, biking, swimming, have a taxing effect on the body and its energy system. My suggestion is that when you are recovering from illness, you start with strength and mobility and then you move to cardio when the body is prepared, so you don’t overstress the body and prolong your illness.
Again, start slow. If you regularly ran 5 miles before you got sick, don’t jump right in and run that distance. Start with 1 slow mile and see how it feels. Be willing to alternate walking and running (or whatever modification makes sense for your chosen activity).
When you are immediately coming out of illness, you do not want to overstress the body. Your goal is to reawaken your foundational fitness and re-familiarize the body with moving.
Practice not forcing, pushing and maxing out, but rather, listening, responding and being light, playful and in enjoyment instead of punishment. Practice being at 50-75% of max exertion, where you can breathe somewhat easily, have a conversation, and keep going. Save max effort for when you are clear of your illness and foundational fitness has been reestablished. Don’t worry, you will get there and going slow and listening will likely get you there faster, because you can be consistent.
6. Return to normal training
When it feels like foundational fitness levels are reestablished and the exercises you have been doing are not bringing back symptoms or tanking your energy, then you can return to normal training. You can start to include cardio and strength/mobility and combine the two. You can work on periods of max effort.
I can’t give you a timeline for when that will happen. Sometimes recovery is super fast. You get sick, rest for a day and then a few days later feel ready to take it all on again. Sometimes, it might be a week or two of walking, simple strength and mobility before you even feel ready to go for a short run or a bike.
I can’t emphasize enough that your job is to learn to listen and respond with non-judgment and acceptance to your personal somatic experience.
Though you may learn patterns and signals of your body, every illness and circumstance of that illness is different and requires you to be adept at tuning into your specific and individual needs at that moment in time.
And remember, go slow to go fast.
We often make the mistake of thinking that we can get back into shape faster if we push harder. But, consistency is king. If you are pushing so hard that symptoms come back or you aren’t able to do anything the next day, then you aren’t helping yourself. You want to move at a pace that you can be consistent, keep showing up and build foundationally before you grow.