I think it’s fair to say that while triathletes as a group have a number of very positive personal characteristics, “common sense” is not one that necessary leaps to the top of the list. Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of judgment, our spokes are not always 100% true, if you know what I mean.
Nowhere is this on display more vividly than in the area of triathletes and the common cold. I bet the average person would probably think that, because of our fanatical obsession with fitness and training, triathletes as an overall demographic group would rank pretty high on the healthiness scale. How ironic, therefore, that according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report, triathletes as a group now rank, in terms of overall wellness, one notch below Pope John Paul II.
OK, I made that fact up, but my experience is that spending time with triathletes is a lot like hanging out in the waiting room of the local health care clinic. One of the reasons is that all of the constant training leaves us in an perpetually weakened physical condition. Our immune system is so busy responding to all of the self-inflicted assaults, like those early-morning track workouts in pouring rainstorms, that it is has very little left over for all of the routine, day-to-day exposures, which makes us sitting ducks for even the most pathetically lame germs that happen to be hovering around out there.
And this is further aggravated by the body-fat factor. Because most triathletes have relatively low body fat, we have very little natural insulation. In my case, I often find myself bundled up and shivering like a skinny little hairless dog even in the mildest weather. I don’t think I’ve ever used the AC in my apartment, and my heating bill in the winter is about $300 a month, because I know that if the temperature drops below 70 at any point during the night, I’ll wake up with double pneumonia. The net result of all this, is that in terms of susceptibility to illness, the typical triathlete is pretty much comparable to your average 98-year-old grandmother.
The difference, though, is that the grandmother generally knows what to do when she does catch a cold. Triathletes have no clue. I think a lot of triathletes have a great deal of confusion between fitness and health. We tend to assume that because we’re in generally good physical condition, the normal rules for treating illness don’t apply to us. This causes us to do some things that would give Hippocrates a heart attack. For example, if you have a bad cold and 103 temperature, I don’t think you will find very many health care professionals who would recommend getting up at 6:00 in the morning to immerse yourself in a freezing cold swimming pool for an hour and a half.
This stems, of course, from the fear that if we ever take a day or two off to rest, we’ll get hopelessly out of shape and fall so far behind that our entire racing season, and probably our entire careers, will be trashed. Most triathletes, therefore, won’t take time off for any malady short of a severed limb. We’ve even come up with our own “old triathlete’s tales” to try to justify this behavior. My personal favorite, which I heard just the other day, is that if the cold is “in your head,” it’s OK to train through it; but if it’s “in your chest,” you need to take the day off. The brilliance of this one is that colds always feel like they’re in your head, so there’s never a reason to take a day off.
The result of all this is that once we do get a cold, there’s absolutely no way we can ever get rid of it. It becomes a permanent training partner. In my own case, for example, I’m pretty sure I’ve had the same cold for about 14 years now. Although I have to admit that in my case, I think there’s a pretty good chance that, like a lot of other things, it might literally be in my head.