When you’re in the middle of training and suddenly you’ve got a cough or the sniffles, it’s immediately time to valuate what to do. Running with a cold isn’t always a bad idea, but you need to know when to push and when to pause.
You’ve been washing your hands like a mad woman, eating plenty of greens and of course taking care of your body with smart training….right?
But you touched an elevator button that someone who has been less enthusiastic with their health did and now you’re making it rain tissues. Because you’re a runner the first thing you find yourself asking is “Can I still run“? instead of “should I see a doctor?”
It’s been noted that runners are crazy and this is a good example of why.
Today we’re exploring the age old question of will running with a cold make it worse? How to know when you’re good to go and when it’s really time for a solid recovery day.
In this article, you’ll learn the golden rule to know when to run and when not to, along with exceptions to that rule, and how running with a cold affects your body.
Should I Run with A Cold? How to Decide If You Should Run or Not
When you’re whole body hurts, it’s pretty easy to know you need the day off, but other times it’s not quite so obvious.
‘Above the neck’ is the golden rule that most runners are asked to follow while making the decision of whether or not to run with a cold.
If you have any symptoms below your neck, i.e., symptoms in your chest, then it’s generally advised to stay home.
But if you have mild nose, throat, or ear symptoms, you should generally be able to go out for a run. In fact, it may even help you feel better!
The location of your symptoms is incredibly important and it’s what you should focus on the most.
There is a basic rule of thumb that should be your first concern when it comes to endurance training during a cold, especially running. The critical question is whether your symptoms are located above or below the neck.
Symptoms Above the Neck
If you experience symptoms solely above your neck, you most likely have a head cold along with a blocked or runny nose, a headache, and sneezing.
Running is unlikely to aggravate these symptoms, so as long as you take it slow and stick to restricted training sessions, you should be OK to run.
Bear in mind that training when unwell, even a simple cold, might result in further issues such as sinus infection or even pneumonia.
If you attempt to run while suffering from a cold and your symptoms increase, take a step back and rest until your symptoms subside.
Can you sweat out a cold?
Sort of! You won’t actually get rid of the cold, but it can temporarily improve your symptoms, as described above!
Even Dr’s running tests on sick runners, were surprised to see that really they were totally ok to exercise.
“I was surprised their lung function wasn’t impaired,” Dr. Kaminsky, exercise physiologist at Ball State said. “I was surprised their overall exercise performance wasn’t impaired, even though they were reporting feeling fatigued.”
BONUS: And here’s a really important note about how quickly do we lose fitness?? It’s one day!
Symptoms Below the Neck
Anything below the neck is indicative of a more serious illness, and the only way to treat it is to rest until the symptoms subside. Especially because jostling is gong to make it all feel worse.
If you have symptoms below the neck such as chest congestion, coughing, body aches, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or severe muscular ache, discontinue running until your symptoms resolve.
These are common sense guidelines, and you must use your own judgment and closely monitor your body; even if you pass the neck check, keep an eye out for additional symptoms.
‘Neck Check’ Checklist
Now that you know how the location of your symptoms make a difference when deciding whether or not to run, here’s the ‘neck check’ checklist to help you decide:
- Runny nose? Sore throat?You’re good to go, keep it easy as noted.
- Trouble breathing? Hacking Cough?Take another rest day.
- High temperature or aching muscles?Probably need at least a week for your immune system to recover.
- GI Distress? Upset Stomach?Really, do you want to run…it’s going to make this all feel worse.
- Fatigued?If nothing else is bothering you an easy run might be what the doctor ordered.
What are the Exceptions to the Above the Neck Rule?
As is the case with most rules, the neck rule has notable exceptions. ‘Whole-body’ symptoms such as a fever should cause concern, even if they are mild.
While a fever may accompany seasonal allergies, it is more frequently a sign of an infection developing. When in doubt, it is preferable to err on the side of caution and avoid intense workout sessions such as running long distances.
Dizziness, on the other hand, should never be taken lightly. Dizziness can develop for a variety of reasons, ranging from a dip in blood pressure to a middle ear infection.
Regardless of the cause, running may not be safe if your balance is impaired. Utilize your best judgment and consult a physician if symptoms do not improve.
There are occasions when nasal congestion is severe enough that it considerably impairs your ability to breathe. If you have a ‘nose cold’ and are forced to breathe only via your mouth, you may want to reconsider running.
While a nasal decongestant may be beneficial, it is advised to discontinue exercise if you are gasping for air or feeling lightheaded.
Until you are able to breathe normally again, you may want to limit yourself from running according to your regular training schedule.
How an Easy Run Affects Your Body When Having a Cold
For the majority of people, the immune system will respond favorably to an easy run but having a cold means it’s not the time for your hardest track workout of the year. Doctors think this could be due to a few factors:
- The short-term increase in body temperature seems to help fight bacterial growth.
- We know running releases endorphin’s, which make us happy…being happy is a big boost to the immune system and can therefore help ward off illness.
- Science also shows that because running increases blood flow, it means a quicker circulation of white blood cells throughout the body, which enhances the immune system.
“Check in with yourself 10 minutes after starting your workout,” exercise physiologist Ellen Breeding says. “If you feel fine, then carry on. But if you don’t feel great, then wrap it up right then and there, or else you’ll make it worse.”
BONUS: Checkout my drug free tips for preventing illness!! I swear by them during heavy training and with all my travels.
Tips for Running While Sick
If you have above the neck symptoms and want to go out for a run, here are a few tips:
- Lower the intensity: Instead of running hard as you normally would, run at a comfortable pace.
- Stop your interval training: It can put your body under too much stress so it’s best to avoid it till your symptoms subside.
- Cut the distance: Now’s not the time to run long, so reduce your distance so that you can still run without negatively affecting your body.
- Turn off any GPS tracking devices: They will tempt you to push yourself too hard, so turn them off till you’re feeling better and feel up to it.
- Don’t run in a competitive group: Running in a competitive group may push you beyond your comfort zone, so stick to running solo or with a friend that knows how you’re feeling.
- Stay clear of races: It’s not advisable to run a major race with a cold, so you might need to pull out of any big ones coming up
- Sleep more: Consider sleeping more by adding in a nap or just get to bed even earlier for optimal recovery
- Try CBD oil to improve workout recovery
- Hydrate,hydrate, hydrate, and get more electrolytes into your body.
As a runner there are times where recovery is every bit as key to the training process and getting yourself out the door when motivation is lagging. If your body is begging for rest, then let go of the stress of missing a few runs and recover so that you can return 100%.Answering the age old question --- Should I Workout When Sick? #health Click To Tweet
Note for Endurance Athletes
Are you getting sick a lot? It could be a signal that you’re over training.
Endurance athletes have an increased risk of illness when their training reaches peak levels or especially after an event where we’re giving our full effort.
During that time cortisol rises, antibodies in saliva drop dramatically and a number of other very sciency things happen making our body more susceptible to disease.Why Endurance Athletes get sick! What to do this winter! #runchat Click To Tweet
Our lowered immunity is temporary, lasting from three to 72 hours after an intense, prolonged event. Nevertheless, it presents an ideal opportunity to viruses and other invading pathogens, especially those that enter the body through the respiratory system.
In fact, according to David Nieman, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, someone running the Western States 100 miler has more like a 1 in 4 chance of getting ill.
Running a Marathon with a Cold?
What if your concern isn’t just your everyday training, but the big race that you’ve been working up to for months now?
Based on the studies and the above tips, if you’re just blowing snocket rockets and maybe a little coughing, then go for it.
Run your race as hard as you want.
It could feel harder if your body is depleted, so make sure you’re doing everything you can to support it in the days before.
- Get additional sleep
- Drink more electrolytes
- Focus on high quality nutrition for nutrients
- Don’t skimp on the carbs or fuel, you will hit the wall
- Be willing to adjust during the race if you start feeling worse
- Remember there are many races, 1 body
POST RACE you need to take recovery twice as seriously as normal.
Because your body was fighting something going in to the heavy load, you’ve increased your cortisol and now need to really give your body every chance at recovery.
Checkout my immune booster ideas and follow this post race recovery plan!
And you should of course wrap up warm. As well as dress appropriately with winter running gear like long tights and thermal base layers, you should be wearing a beanie hat, arm warmers and gloves.
What if you’ve missed training due to being sick?
If you’ve gotten the flu or other illness and had to miss more that a few runs, read this story on how to get back on track after missed training.
All right, hopefully this helps to put to bed all your questions around should you run if you’re sick? The answer is really it depends on what type of illness and then being smart about the workouts that you do.
Looking for more running healthy tips?
Do you: get sick yearly? Stay healthy as a horse?
What’s your rule of thumb for running when sick?
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Once I mostly eliminated dairy my sniffles pretty much disappeared. I hope I haven't jinxed myself now!
Great tips Amanda. It is always hard to decide sometimes if you should go out or not. But mostly I think just trust your body. Cutting back on intensity is a great idea too.
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Thanks for sharing! Sometimes the fear of losing momentum keeps us from taking care of ourselves!
I am in that boat right now. The hubby brought home a sore throat last week and now I have it… I took a rest day yesterday. But I am going to go for an easy run today and hopefully help speed its exit!
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Thank you for great advice. It's hard to take a rest day, when all you want is get back out there again. It is so important to listen to your body!
My recent post Tempo Training For Running Stamina
Totally agree with that quote form Ellen Breeding. I live by that! If you feel like crap after only 10 minutes in.. you seriously can't keep going. It drives me nuts when people say things like ' no excuses' or 'no days off'. It is SO important to listen to your body and let it heal!
Yup, I know this all too well. After a big run earlier this year, I ended up with the flu just 2 days later. Coincidence? I don't think so. I am always working on keeping my immune system up and running strong!
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This is Rose. Just checking your site
It always amazes me how our bodies just know, like getting sick after a big race when all that adrenaline and stress has passed. If I feel it in my chest, I usually skip the run and drink lots of fluid and rest up.
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I'm around sick kids every day as part of my job as a nurse practitioner. So I don't get sick very often. But after this year's Chicago marathon, I got a nasty bronchitis. I know the below the neck rule, but I did keep running. I know enough to be dangerous, and I wasn't struggling with breathing, so I figured it was ok. If nothing else, that deep breathing helped me clear out my lungs!
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Loving these tips! I was sick all week last week and took the week off from running–definitely a smart move. I felt achy and fatigued and just generally gross. Looks like I followed your tips without even knowing! :)
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If overall you’re not feeling good, with fever, muscle aches, stomach problems, I’d say take a rest and not run, it will only get worse afterwards. I’ve had instances I had to decide not to run a day before a major marathon because of sudden fever and flu.
Thanks for the advice. Its hard to know when you're too ill to exercise – especially when we are told over and over again that exercise is so good for us! But running on an illness can do more harm than good, and its important that we rest and allow our body's to recover. Thanks for sharing!
The key is to know yourself. I have IBS and food allergies which can add to the GI distress but when I have flare-ups, I still go out and end up feeling a lot better. That being said, I do make adjustments: I sleep in/rest in the morning and go out later in the day, allowing a slower pace if needed.
Talk about timing! Just got back from the gym where my boyfriend and I had this exact conversation- he’s a big girl and opined that I should be quarantined with my sniffy nose and sore throat after I’d done an easy 4.5 mile treadmill jog. I texted him the link to your article and, although it was tempting, did not add an “I told ya’ so” :) thanks for all the great tips, have a happy day!