Running with a cold : should you do it?
It really depends on your cold, it turns out – running while sick can make you feel better. It can also make you feel worse if you’re not careful.
Runners are famous for pushing through all kinds of injuries and illnesses. Sometimes that dedication pays off. Sometimes it’s just plain crazy! When it comes to getting sick, staying home might be the smartest thing you can do.
If you’re training for a marathon, catching a cold is the last thing you need – yet it is actually very common. This post will look at the things to consider when deciding between resting or heading out.
Should I Run with a Cold? When to Run and When Not to
‘Above the neck’ is the golden rule most runners apply to this decision.
If you have any symptoms in your chest, stay home.
But if you have mild symptoms in your nose, throat, or ears, you should be able to get out for a run. It may even make you feel better.
Todd Buckingham, PhD., is an exercise physiologist and the 2018 world champion of Sprint and Olympic distance Triathlon. He explains how this happens from his position at the sports performance lab at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
“Running with a cold can actually make you feel better, depending on your symptoms. If your symptoms are above the neck (e.g., stuffy/runny nose, congestion), then running can temporarily relieve some of those symptoms.
When you’re congested, blood is flowing to your nasal cavity to fight the infection caused by the cold. More blood flow to this area means that the blood vessels in your nasal cavity become expanded and take up more room making you feel congested.
When you run, blood will flow to your leg muscles and away from your nasal cavity. This will bring relief to your congestion while you are running.”
But don’t overdo it. Keep to an easy pace, and don’t go out for longer than a few miles. It can be tempting to just push through the illness, but you don’t want to make it worse.
Dr. Buckingham describes this as well.
“When we run at moderate to high intensities or for long durations of time, the immune system becomes suppressed for several hours afterward. The reason for this is that the stress hormone cortisol is released with prolonged, high-intensity exercise.
Cortisol can inhibit the function of certain parts of the immune system which can lead to a temporary suppression.
And when you’re already trying to fight off the cold, you don’t want your immune system to be compromised more than it already is.”
Running while sick can help clear out some of your congestion. It can also help cheer you up. Just getting out of the house for a bit can have a great effect on how you feel. These benefits need to be compared to the things that could potentially make you feel worse.
Whitney Heins, VDOT certified coach and founder of The Mother Runners, a resource and community for moms who run, also stresses the importance of not pushing too hard.
“Running with a cold should have little to no effect on your body as long as you use common sense. You shouldn’t run if you have a fever or below the neck symptoms.
Running could make your cold worse and lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia or a sinus infection. If you feel worse as you are running, stop – go home and rest. If just the thought of running makes you feel tired, then rest. Adjust your training schedule to moderate intensity and duration.
Avoid runs longer than an hour and paces faster than an easy pace. If you have a cold, your run should be a maintenance run that maintains your fitness rather than improves it.”
Running with a Sore Throat
Using the same Above the Neck rule, running with a sore throat should be fine. The heavy breathing might be annoying, especially if you are running in a cold climate, but that shouldn’t stop your progress.
If the sore throat is the only symptom you’re feeling, don’t let that stop you from getting out there. If it feels like the sore throat is the first symptom of a bigger illness, stay home and rest.
Wondering how to tell if your sore throat might signify a bigger illness? One common red flag: if you finish your run and end up with a headache (even after drinking plenty of water), then that could be a second symptom of your sickness.
Dangers of Running With a Cough
Running with a cough is a different story from just running with a cold.
Coughing comes from the lungs, which are clearly below the neck. If you have a persistent or productive cough, stay home. Running with a cough will feel miserable from the moment you start. It will only feel worse the more you keep trying to push through it.
The American Lung Association offers an explanation. They talk about how it can be ok to run with mild symptoms. But if you have a fever or anything like that, it is best to stay home and rest.
Being honest about the severity and location of your symptoms is important. Don’t try to trick yourself into thinking you’re feeling better than you really are. And don’t forget that running with any symptoms needs to be much gentler than anything you’d do during an intense training run.
Dr. Buckingham explains:
“A lot of my recommendations depend on the severity of the cold. As previously mentioned, if the symptoms are below the neck like sore muscles and body aches, then it’s best to take the day off and rest or maybe go for a walk.
If it’s a mild cold, you can still go running with a cold but your pace should slow dramatically. For example, if your normal pace is a 9-minute mile, you should slow down to a 10:30-11:00 minute mile.
When you’re sick, the goal of a run isn’t to gain fitness. You want to do everything you can to feel better faster so that you can get back to building fitness. The problem is that many of us try to push through the sickness and this ends up setting us back even further.”
Whatever You Do, Listen to Your Body
Whether your symptoms are above or below your neck, and whether they’re mild or severe, is something only you can decide.
Don’t ignore any other symptoms that are more general and not easily applied to the Above the Neck rule.
Body aches, chills, nausea, or just a general feeling of lethargy are examples. If you are experiencing any of these, you may have more than just a cold and may need to stay home and recover before exposing yourself to the elements.
Always make sure you’re getting enough rest and staying properly hydrated. You won’t be able to evaluate any of these symptoms if you don’t.
Getting out for a gentle run can help, but don’t push it. Save the heavy work for when you’re feeling better.
If in doubt, don’t go running with a cold.
This can be especially hard if you are in the middle of your marathon training. The process of checking off the days as you complete the planned run becomes a ritual.
You may think that skipping a run will set you back at a costly rate, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Think of it this way: If you push yourself to run with an increasingly worsening cold, your cold will most likely escalate to something serious. Then you’ll end up skipping many more runs and possibly having to postpone your race because of it.
But if you take a relaxing 48 hours to drink some ginger tea and catch up on plenty of sleep, you’ll only miss one or two runs before you’re right back on track, feeling better than ever before.
Skipping a run on the plan might make you nervous, but taking care of yourself will be better for your overall training goals than pushing through and going running with a cold.
If you haven’t started a training plan yet, be sure to check out our free library of training plans to find the one that is right for you.
Check your vitals and make sure everything is operating in a healthy way, then get out there and push yourself!