Making Sick Days Work for You (But Not Too Hard)

IT-IS-TIME-TO-REST1Let me just come right out and say that I think the whole idea of adequate sleep, rest, and taking the time needed for recovery is a feminist issue. It’s a feminist issue because the chances of the majority of women putting themselves and their self-care ahead of that of others are slim. Feminist issues arise when gender inequality is the result of structural and systemic features of our social world.

There is a mindset of sacrifice and pushing ourselves. Now I know that the mindset of pushing ourselves is not just a woman thing. But it’s that guilt that’s associated with “not doing enough” that–if you’ll allow me to make a sweeping generalization with a fair bit of confidence–plagues women more.

I’ve seen this in my own case lately because I was really under the weather for a couple of weeks with a cold and cough that settled into my chest and made me feel miserable and tired.  I had to take almost total rest. Though I only missed one session with my personal trainer, I missed four swims, two bike classes, and I didn’t run for two full weeks. Heck, I didn’t make it out to yoga, not even the yin class.

At first, I felt really guilty.  For me, the guilt comes when I feel as if I should be doing something that I’m not doing. Nevermind that I could hardly breathe. Nevermind that I felt achey all over. Nevermind that I could hardly even Then I had a thought, “I’m going to appreciate these sick days and use them to get the rest that I obviously need.”

We’re not all that good about scheduling rest and recovery (you can read that as the royal “we” or as “you, me, and lots of our friends”–your choice). Even I, with my minimalist approach to working out, have very little rest scheduled into my ideal schedule–Long run Sunday, spin Monday, swim Tuesday morning, bike training Tuesday evening, personal training Wednesday, tempo run Thursday, swim Friday morning, personal training Friday late afternoon, hot yoga Saturday (and that’s only because I bailed on adding a second indoor bike class).

When Sam talks about her schedule, it’s always packed. Caitlin from Fit and Feminist has a paper calendar that is fuller than full with her workout schedule. Both Sam and Caitlin work on the premise that they don’t need to build in rest because life happens. That will take care of rest days.

Life is that thing that interrupts our ideal routine: illness, late meetings at work, family emergencies (or occasions), vacations, traffic jams and house guests, etc. Caitlin goes into the month thinking that at least some of what’s on the calendar won’t be happening.

My approach is similar, but I have what they appear to lack: guilt. That’s why getting sick works to my advantage. Even if I feel negative about it at the beginning, I can move into acceptance and, most importantly, permission. Being sick gives me the permission to take a break.

No other reasons work for me in quite the same way. And I think that’s a problem (at least for me it is) that’s connected to the difficulty I have with self-permission to slow down, take a break, get the recovery that’s needed. I’ve seen this with other women who even struggle against it when their swim coach or bike coach or triathlon coach insists that it’s time for them to do a lighter week or taper to prep for a race.

What I want to say is that it’s fine to use sick days as rest days. But if the schedule is so impossible that you’re counting on sick days for rest, that might be kind of stressful in a way that’s unnecessary. I hit a point during my two-week illness where I actually felt relieved that I was still sick because I really didn’t want to get out of bed to go swimming. Now, it’s true that perhaps, had I not been sick, I might have been more excited about the swim. But I loved the luxury of feeling as if it was perfectly acceptable, even necessary, for me to stay in bed.

When I used to attend an Iyengar yoga class regularly, I liked how we cycled through each month with very vigorous practices the first three weeks of a month, and always a supported, quiet, restorative practice in the last week of each month. Some people hated the supported week. They felt like it was a waste of time. But oh, how restored I used to feel after it.

Knowing that, you’d think I’d have an easier time scheduling in rest. Right now, the Monday spin class almost never happens. I’m sure it would be psychologically healthier for me to just accept that it’s not going to happen and call it a rest day instead of a day that I should be going to spin class but I’m not.

How about you? How do you do with scheduling in rest? Are you like Sam and Caitlin, who seem to have no problem over-scheduling on the premise that something will come up that forces them to take a rest day here and there?  Do you suffer guilt when you miss a workout, or are you able to just roll with it?

And most of all, do you welcome sick days with a kind of relief, in that they are the only days that you well and truly have total permission to take a break?


8 thoughts on “Making Sick Days Work for You (But Not Too Hard)

  1. Ugh, Tracy, I’m like you. Especially on that “Monday spin class never happens” thing. My example is that while I usually work out first thing in the mornings, on Wednesdays I have an early workday start (5:45am) and it’s a longer workday overall, with me leaving the office at around 5 as usual. It’s hard for me to work out after that, and then turn around and work out Thursday morning to get back on the AM schedule.

    For YEARS, I’d plan something and it just wouldn’t happen. For awhile, my workplace offered very gentle yoga after work on Wednesdays, and that was OK (and also extraordinarily convenient) but now that’s gone. So most of the time Wednesday is just a rest day and that’s OK. BUT. Tell that to my stupid fitbit. I can set myself a daily step goal, but can’t customize it to make my goal THAT day lower than all the other days of the week (when I’m taking a lot of steps because EXERCISE). And I still sort of feel like I’ve failed on that one day. It’s hard for me to accept it as a rest day and just move along.

    1. Yes, Stephanie, this is exactly the sort of phenomenon I’m talking about. Also, it’s amazing to me that the fitbit can’t be customized to incorporate rest days! Grrrr. Though I appreciate the allure of tracking, it’s also a bit oppressive, which is why I don’t have a fitbit (despite seeing the appeal). Thanks for your comment!

  2. Tracy – I’m just like you as well. Instead of attempting to schedule rest days, I try to figure out where to pack more into my schedule. As it turns out, it’s tough being a full time working adult, running, and also fitting in weight lifting and cross training! Like Stephanie, I wear not a fitbit, but a Nike fuel band that reminds me exactly how active I haven’t been if I happen to miss a workout on a certain day. It’s a bit tormenting. If I miss a workout, I feel lazy. I hate to feel lazy.

    The only salvation sick days give me is that I usually don’t eat as much when I’m sick, which in turn, sort of allows me to forgive myself for being inactive. But, psychologically, that’s not the right view point, and I know that. I will say that I get enough sleep at night – thankfully I’m disciplined about that. But other than that, it is very hard for me to schedule my rest. I just always feel like there’s something I could be doing to better myself. Perhaps I need to work on dropping that mentality. The struggle continues! Great post, and thank you for bringing this subject up!

  3. Hillary, it’s hard to change the mindset, but I suggest starting with allowing sick days to be permission to rest. And that’s great that you usually get enough sleep. That puts you ahead of lots of us. I’m not getting enough these days from Monday to Friday. I use the weekends to catch up. I too hate to feel lazy but I’m working on being kinder to myself. I would never, ever call a friend lazy for missing a workout! Thanks for your comment.

  4. If I were in your shoes and felt guilty for missing workouts, I’d schedule rest days. You won’t make progress without rest. Rest is part of the program. You need to recover and rebuilt. It’s part of getting faster and stronger. Really. Scheduling workouts everyday and feeling guilty if you miss them seems like the worst of both worlds. Plan your rest. It really does matter. My two cents!

    I love scheduled rest days but these days my life is so chaotic I know I will miss workouts. Like Caitlin I get about 80% in so I over schedule and don’t feel guilt for missing.

  5. I guess I’m sincerely puzzled about “overscheduling” exercise. The only time where I will cycle if I’m cycle/not well is in the middle of bicycling tour trip. For instance, I did have a terrible sunburn which upset me…on 2nd day of 3 wk. bike trip in Canadian Maritime Provinces. Bought a long cotton shirt to protect arms, etc.

    I have cycled when recovering from a cold, under 10 km. but that’s not exactly normal for me.

    Now I feel like a lazy sludge against some of you! No I haven’t ramped up …just gentle yoga and pilates sometimes in evening.

    Life for me, is just other stuff that’s non exercise activities, that interests me too.

  6. Timely post for me Tracy, because I read it when I had to take a sick day with hacking cough. Of course, that didn’t stop me from doing an easy 10 mile ride along the bike path in the sun, with a giant nap for recovery in the afternoon. Then, guess what? I had a high temperature that night which fortunately became normal by the next morning, then back to work. I couldn’t even 100% rest on my sick day! Since then, I’ve taken a couple easy rides, and my body feels so much better now. And I’ve let myself NOT register for a big local bike race in 2 weeks. I too need to be kind to myself. Thanks for an excellent post!

    1. Mary–10 miles on a sick day! Wow. Though it sounds as if the external conditions were great for a beautiful, sunny run on the bike path, it clearly wasn’t the ideal choice that day. Tough to be kind to ourselves. Thanks for sharing your experience. Hope you’re feeling better now. 🙂

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