If you have been running for any length of time, you have likely encountered the great conundrum faced by all runners at some point; to run or not to run with a cold.
As cold weather settles in and race day approaches - maintaining your health is absolutely critical.
Personally, I would not let anything short of a broken limb or hospital stay keep me from running a race I have trained for. If you are reading this article, chances are you feel the same way.
Fortunately, I have made several of the rookie mistakes that sick runners make their first few times out on the course with a cold. Now, you can reap the benefits of my flounders and avoid them yourself.
Running with a Cold? Dos and Dont's
Running while sick with a cold definitely comes with its list of dos and don’ts.
First of all, make sure you are sticking within your limits. If you have been rocking a fever over 100 degrees when race day arrives, you should avoid the race. If you cannot do that, at least give up on the notion that you will hit a PR. Trying to do so can result in serious illness.
Running tasks the cardiovascular system, and you don’t want to overtax it by forcing your body into shock.
Second, make sure that you are not suffering from something more serious than a common cold virus. If you have any symptoms of pneumonia, bronchitis or sinus infection, it is best to avoid the race.
The last thing you want to do is cause respiratory failure because you cannot handle sitting out for one race. Forcing one race might cost you an entire season.
In regards to determining how sick you really are and whether you should keep running, here is what Jonathan C. Crist, M.D. had to say on the subject:
With respect to athletes and respiratory infections, we talk about performing a “neck check”. If symptoms exist above the neck (e.g., runny nose, congestion, sore throat), we usually recommend a trial of exercise at half intensity for 10 minutes and continue as tolerated if symptoms do not worsen. If someone is going to exercise while they are ill, I would generally recommend increasing caloric/fluid intake slightly so they are not burning the candle at both ends.
Dr. Crist continues (pay attention; this next part is really important):
If symptoms exist below the neck (e.g., fever, fatigue, severe cough, stomach symptoms), there should be no exercise. Exercising with fever not only may increase injury risk but also impairs muscle strength, mental cognition, and pulmonary perfusion, and increases fluid loss.
Like your mom always told you, better safe than sorry.
Finding Your Balance
Keep in mind that running will boost your immune system, but you cannot sweat out a fever. While we would all like to convince ourselves that running with a cold is a great idea and likely the cure scientists have been seeking since two men sneezed in a cave, it must be done with caution.
It is absolutely true that regular exercise does wonders for your health and your ability to stave off most viruses and infections; however, there are studies to show that distance training may actually put you at risk for colds and flu viruses.
The reason is that your body undergoes a tremendous amount of stress during peak training seasons. If you are not allowing yourself the opportunity to heal between races and training runs, you are likely wearing your body out.
Know Yourself and Your Body
Runners are incredibly in tune with their bodies. The best advice I can offer you is to listen to yours.
Also, I can advise you to not take cold medicines before a race.
- Benadryl will make you exhausted and wear you out faster than it will take a mid-packer to make it to the starting line.
- Sudafed will dehydrate you and speed up your heart rate; both very dangerous side effects while running 13.1 miles.
- Other meds offer a combination of antihistamines that will have the same scary effects.
Preventing A Cold Before Race Day
We've already talked about how important it is to know your limits and not overdo it.
But there are a few simple & good ideas that can help you ward off a cold, even if the temperature is dropping as race day approaches.
It turns out, how you treat your body is more important than the decision to run in a long sleeve or a short-sleeved shirt...
That's an easy one, right? Part of every well thought out training plan should be a hydration plan to make sure your body is getting enough water.
This includes getting water before, during, and after your runs - whether it's hot or cold outside.
Get Enough Sleep
I told you these ideas were pretty simple, right?
While getting enough sleep sounds easy, for many of us the combination of work, family, social activities along with your commitment to wake up at 5 AM for a long run mean that you simply don't have much time left over to get adequate sleep.
One study of 164 healthy men and women showed 39% of those who got less than 6 hours sleep per night came down with a cold.
For those in the study who got over 6 hours of sleep every night, only 18% ended up getting a cold.
The evidence is clear - if you're sacrificing sleep while training for a race, you are at a greater risk to get sick.
If you continue to add miles and intensity as your race gets closer, it could be hard for your body to recover (in a variety of ways).
Data shows that those who overtrain are more susceptible to illness and infection, so you'd be wise to taper off your training as the big day draws near.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, according to Runner's World most studies show those who reduce their training before a big race improve their time by about 3% - which is around 5 minutes if you run a 3 hour marathon.
So tapering off a bit can give your body the bandwidth it needs to fight off viruses, plus it can help you be at your peak when it matters. That's a win win.
Wipe Down Equipment
Hopefully you're able to get all your running in outdoors, but depending on the weather you may have to find a treadmill at the gym to get your miles in.
If that's the case, make sure you take a clean towel or disinfecting wipe and quickly wipe down the handles and any other equipment you may use while you're there.
High Antioxidant Diet
Foods high in antioxidants help your body repair cells and ultimately give your body's immune system a little boost - meaning that you'll have a better chance of stopping minor illness before it starts.
Plenty of fruits and vegetables score high on the antioxidant count, here's a list of 10 good ones to get you started.
If You're Going To Run With a Cold...
If you are going to run with a cold, take your race in stride. Plan to have a slower finishing time on race day and hydrate more than you normally would. Stick to your race plan, even if that means a slightly slower pace than you're used to when you're 100%.
If you feel dizzy, feverish or tight in the chest, stop and visit the medic tent or first aid station.
Be kind to your body and it will be kind to you.