More time indoors in colder weather often causes an increase in colds and other illnesses in the fall and winter months – although you can certainly catch a cold any time of year. Whether you are in peak training for a race or maintaining your fitness, catching a cold as a runner is a disruption to training. How do you navigate running with a cold? Should you run or rest? This article explores how to approach running with a cold, as well as suggestions for immune health during cold season.
(Read here for specific information on running and Covid-19..)
Running with a Cold: Are There Risks?
You may have often heard the advice to run if the symptoms are in your head and rest if the symptoms are below the neck or systemic. However, just because you can run through a head cold, does not mean it is the best thing for your health and your training.
In his book Daniel’s Running Formula, renowned coach Jack Daniels outlines a simple approach to running with a cold: don’t. “Don’t train when sick,” he outlines as one of his eleven laws of training. “Not following this law often leads to a more prolonged setback than if you’d taken a few days off to recover.”
In my own coaching, I follow that guideline. If you are sick, rest. Your training quality will suffer, your illness will prolong, and you might begin to dread training sessions if you train through illness.
Physiological Effects of Running with a Cold:
- Dehydration: Hydration needs increase with illness. Running causes fluid loss via sweat, which can worsen dehydration.
- Elevated heart rate: During illness, your heart rate is higher due to your immune response. Running will feel harder, you will fatigue sooner, and you may be at risk for dizziness.
- Difficulty breathing: Congestion and airway inflammation can make breathing more difficult.
- Prolonged illness: While exercise is overall good for your immune health, acute prolonged exercise does suppress the immune system. When your body is already battling an illness, running with a cold can delay the recovery process.
Rest is Best
If you have a cold, rest for the acute days of the illness. Gentle movement such as walking is generally okay. However, you want to avoid running with a cold during the first few days. If your symptoms linger and are enough to cause fatigue or trouble breathing, continue to rest as long as needed.
Returning to Running After Having a Cold
Generally, once you are recovered, you can start running again. If you took a week or less off, you can pick up your plan as is. Do not attempt to make up miles. If you took two or more weeks off, you generally want to start with a week of reduced mileage (50-75% of your recent volume) and mostly easy running. (For more on how to resume running after time off, reference this article.)
If you experience any troublesome symptoms upon running again (shortness of breath, chest pain, or returning fatigue), it is best to continue to rest and contact your healthcare provider.
How to Support Your Immune System in Training
Runners can be more prone to colds during intense training. Hard endurance training (like marathon training) can suppress the immune system. However, there are certain interventions you can take to reduce the immunosuppression effects of endurance training.
- Eat enough carbohydrates: Carbohydrates serve as the energy source for immune cells.
- Fuel during long runs: Carbohydrates consumed during prolonged training sessions (75 min or more) can reduce inflammatory biomarkers such as IL-6. (Learn more about how to fuel on long runs here.)
- Eat enough protein: Protein is used to produce antibodies, which fight infection and illness. (Endurance athletes have quite high protein needs! The ISSN recommends 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.)
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
- Eat a wide array of fruits and vegetables to have adequate antioxidants in your diet.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to serve as medical advice. If you are ill, please consult a medical professional.