Dealing with a stomach bug is never pleasant, especially for athletes who are driven to train and prepare for upcoming events. Whether it's caused by contaminated food or a virus brought home by kids, gastroenteritis can leave you physically drained with symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or a combination of both. As coaches, we often receive frantic calls from athletes affected by gastroenteritis, especially during training or in the week leading up to a crucial competition. It's important to understand the difference between a minor case of gastroenteritis and a more serious illness, as well as the implications it can have on an athlete's performance.
Differentiating Gastroenteritis from Serious Illnesses
When dealing with gastroenteritis, it's crucial to distinguish between a minor case and a more serious illness. While nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are typical symptoms accompanied by a low-grade fever, a high fever above 101 degrees F should raise concerns about a more severe condition. Additionally, if vomiting lasts for more than 48 hours, leading to significant dehydration, seeking medical attention becomes necessary. Particularly in the week before an important competition, consulting a physician is a wise decision.
Impact on Athletic Performance
Minor gastroenteritis tends to hit athletes suddenly, making them feel terrible for 1-2 days before subsiding. However, its impact on performance can be significant. The body endures a period of reduced nourishment for 24-48 hours, experiences substantial fluid and electrolyte loss, and depletes energy reserves that would ideally be conserved for the actual race or event.
Returning to Exercise or Competition after Gastroenteritis
Is it still possible to perform well in the days following gastroenteritis? The answer is yes, as long as you approach the illness like an endurance event and follow certain guidelines.
##### Understanding the GoalGastroenteritis depletes fluids, electrolytes, and energy from the body. As an athlete aiming to resume training or compete within a week, the goal is to minimize these losses. Merely waiting for the illness to pass without taking in anything to replenish these deficits can worsen the situation. To maximize the chances of recovery, it's essential to keep fluid, electrolyte, and energy deficits as small as possible.
When recovering from gastroenteritis, the priority should be to replenish fluids first, followed by electrolytes, and then calories. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances have more severe consequences for health and performance compared to a lack of calories, and their recovery takes longer. Athletes should focus on consuming fluids, electrolytes, and small portions of simple foods, similar to what they would consume during long training sessions or competitions. Water is an obvious choice, but sports drinks that provide carbohydrates, electrolytes, and water can also be suitable if tolerated. Opt for bland and simple salty foods like crackers when experiencing nausea. Consistently and regularly consuming something, just as during an endurance event, is crucial.
Replenishment after Recovery
Once you start feeling better, the worst is behind you, but there is still work to be done. It's important to replenish what you lost during the illness. Since your gut may still be irritated, avoid overwhelming it with complex foods. Stick to small portions of simple ingredients and eat frequently. Ideally, if you have approximately 3 days between the end of a 24- to 36-hour bout of gastroenteritis and your event, you can still perform well. Having more time for recovery is even better. However, if you have less time, be prepared for a potentially slower performance and understand that dropping out may be the right choice in extreme cases.
Potential Performance Outcomes
Athletes recovering from gastroenteritis may experience surprising improvements or declines in performance. Moderate and temporary weight loss is common due to dehydration, and some athletes may even see weight-related performance enhancements. On the other hand, others may start feeling great initially but then experience a rapid decline. This is likely due to fuel depletion, which occurs more frequently in high-intensity events like 5k/10km running races, cycling criteriums, sprint triathlons, and cyclocross. Athletes competing at moderate intensities for longer durations can potentially avoid this sudden feeling of depletion by consuming calories early on during events.
Gastroenteritis is undoubtedly unpleasant, but giving up is not the solution. As with many challenges in life and sports, it's important to stay focused, work on finding solutions, and be patient. Many champions have overcome gastroenteritis and bounced back to reach the podium in less than a week. So, remember to persevere, take the necessary steps to recover, and never lose sight of your goals.
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