Overtraining in Cold SeasonIn the two decades I’ve been communicating with strength trainers I’ve picked up a lot of anecdotal information. It’s natural in any field to notice trends and phenomenon that keep repeating but haven’t necessarily been proven by rigorous study.

One of the things that occurs frequently are variations of this: “I started training again and was making great progress but I got sick with a cold or flu and had to quit for awhile.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. It’s hundreds, I’m sure.

Right now we are in what pharmaceutical marketers call ‘cough and cold season’ and the above phrase is making the rounds again. I have a hypothesis on this and it might help you this year. When we lift weights we seriously tax our bodies and they have to recover from the depletion. If we train too often we can dig a pretty deep hole and one of the things that is compromised is our immune system.

Let’s say our immune system is normally at a level of ten on a scale of one to ten. By overtraining we drive it down to a six. There are always germs around that we successfully fight off, but at a level six immunity we are more susceptible and a cold or flu can take hold of us.

Hey, I know it’s called cough and cold season because so many people are sick, not because so many people are in the gym – but it also stands to reason that fatiguing your body’s ability to fight back would explain why so many trainees report it after beginning training. Has it happened to you? I know I’ve done it more than once over the years.

My point is I think we should pay very close attention to cold symptoms and at the first sign of a tickle in the throat or a stuffy nose we should stop training and make sure our immune systems have the opportunity to fully recover and fight with everything they have. At the least it could mean the difference between a minor cold or developing full-blown cold.


  • Alex Blankenship

    i can submit one, maybe two counterpoints to this. when i know i am sick (with something mild, of course) training as per my regular routine on the scheduled days has helped some of my illnesses before. i would wager it’s the strong hit of growth hormones in my blood pushing the cellular regeneration rates up to keep the illness from grasping hold of me for a week or more. also, when i broke my right arm, a leg press really did a lot for my bone repair and density. i now have full mobility with said arm. bear in mind, i have regimented my training schedule out so that i always have slightly more than enough time needed between lifts.

  • Lori

    It is my understanding that regular exercise improves immune function. I don’t think we should work out at 100% when we are ill and probably should not be lifting weights, but a gentle aerobic workout may help us feel better, assuming we are not feverish or contagious IMO. It seems to work for me.

  • Rene Kittelsen

    So true!

    Especially if one has small children dragging a cold one after the other from kindergarden which will make your home a germbomb!

    I’m happy about training HIGH intensity once every 20-25 days 🙂


  • David Dressler, BA, RMT

    Pete, when I was in my 20s and 30s, if I was getting sick, I would still go to the gym and train my utmost, body-building and running. I found that this usually got rid of my cold or flu faster. It is now 50 years later, and I still work out to my utmost and do not find that this always banishes or reduces my symptoms. Why these contradictions?

    First of all, when physical stress is put on the body the body responds by producing stress hormones. That is the adrenaline but more likely cortisol high we get when we train hard. These hormones actually help immunity in the very short term. That is, they can also help the immune system fight the cold or flu. General circulation goes up, which also helps eliminate toxins.

    In later life, however, the immune system may not be as strong as it was in youth. Also, flu bugs mutate and it is a continuing challenge to the immune system to adapt. The only way it adapts is by getting sick and “learning” from the experience for next time. Point being, as we age, it is easier to get sick and the extra stimulus from working out may not help the immune system, it may actually impede it. The repair and inflammatory process after a heavy workout may, in that case, just add to the inflammatory process of the infection and make one feel worse.

    On the long term, if cortisol (an adrenal stress hormone) is stimulated too often, it actually weakens the immune system! But usually this is not from working out, which is a regulated stress in that cortisol is stimulated and then it is not needed after the exertion. What causes long term cortisol secretion and consequent weakening of the immune system is chronic stress. When we worry anxiously and cannot relax and cannot seem to resolve whatever it is we are worrying about, cortisol is being secreted continuously. This ends up fatiguing the adrenal glands so eventually there is not enough cortisol (or other adrenal hormones sometimes). Then we feel fatigued, depressed, continue to worry, have lost strength in the gym and don’t know why. There are other symptoms of excess cortisol followed by adrenal exhaustion.

    Chronic fatigue and prolonged stress go together and their link is low cortisol or adrenal exhaustion. There may be other causes of fatigue–iron deficiency, low intake of B-complex vitamins, hormone imbalances, disease, the list is endless. But when there is chronic, unresolved stress (worry), possibly loss of sleep because of bad dreams, adrenal fatigue should be investigated. In the US, there are a group of MDs who call themselves “functional medical doctors” and “natural medical doctors” (which makes one wonder if the others are “dysfunctional” and “non-natural” medical doctors!) who work closely with nutrition and less with pharmaceuticals. Also, NDs or naturopathic doctors work with adrenal exhaustion issues.

  • Moriyah

    My wife and I would ride bikes to the gym every day even in the winter. 45mins ea. way. Workout was 1 1/2 hrs. Routine was different every day. We were not doing Static or Max at the time. We never had a cold or flu. Why?
    Well, some might look sideways but we ate garlic every day and at the least symptom would take oregano oil. Not to mention our diets were high in fruits and veggies and low in animal products. Plus, we consumed herbal teas regularly. The grain grasses and sprouts helped I am sure.
    Oh, and we lived in tents year round.
    Best whole body, mind, emotion and spirit condition ever.
    Best sex too.
    It is not the stress of working out but rather the condition of the immune system.

  • I think Pete’s point is that *over training* may be a factor contributing to one’s susceptibility to colds and flu. “Over training” meaning not allowing sufficient recovery time between workouts such that the body stays in a continual (and increasing) state of stress. Getting “sick” is one way the body has of forcing recovery time. Pete is suggesting that perhaps at the first signs of a cold or flu we should back off and let the body fully recover before continuing any *intense* (maximum overload) workouts or programs. On the other hand, as others have indicated, light to moderate activity may be beneficial.