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Running With A Cold, Should You Run If You’re Sick?

It’s frustrating. Just as your running is going well and you’re sticking to your training plan, you get a cold. What should you do? Is running with a cold really a bad idea?

I’m sure every seasoned runner has run with a cold at some stage. It doesn’t help that cold symptoms can have other causes such as hay fever. It can be hard to tell if it’s safe to run.

I’ve woken up on race day with the sniffles and gone on to run a cracking race. Other times, just an easy run with a cold has morphed into a full-blown infection, seemingly worsened by the light exercise.

running with a head cold

Is Running Good For Colds?

This is a myth. There’s an idea that running opens up your airways – working as a natural decongestant for your blocked nose and helps to clear the bug. It doesn’t sit very well with the reality of what is a cold.

The common cold is a viral infection. The symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, and a sore throat are caused by your immune system being activated. Your immune system is fighting off the infection.

Running may temporarily clear your nasal congestion but it’s a big stretch to say running is good for colds. A gentle walk can be the best way to clear your airways and lift your mood. Save your energy for fighting the infection.

Find out more about what exercise does to your immune system and a few ways to give your immune system a boost.

Does Running With A Cold Make It Worse?

I’ve been doing my research. I always like to fact-check, and I’m especially careful when it’s medical-related. These are my sources:

Reassuringly they all give the same advice.

The Neck Rule Or Neck Check

A good rule of thumb for running with a cold is above or below the neck cold symptoms.

It’s okay to run if you have above the neck symptoms such as a runny nose, mild sore throat, or sneezing provided you have the energy and you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours.

If you have below the neck symptoms such as body aches, coughing, chest congestion, fever, or flu symptoms, DO NOT RUN.

I would also add a persistent or severe sore throat to this list or severe symptoms such as a streaming nose. It may pass the neck rule but that annoying head cold can lead to a more serious illness such as a sinus infection.

It’s also a bad idea to run or exercise with a cold if you suffer from chronic health concerns such as asthma.

Try and listen to your body – if you feel terrible and your body aches, running will make you feel worse and can leave you with a weakened immune system. In flu season that leaves you wide open to catch any cold virus that comes your way.

running with a cold

Running With A Cold In Practice

I’ve always been wary about running with a cold since my GP sat me down a few years ago and gave me a lecture about my asthma.

I’d always kidded myself I had slight asthma and as it wasn’t exercise-induced, I didn’t have to worry about it. An emergency middle-of-the-night rush to the local Cottage hospital put paid to that theory.

So for me, running with even a minor cold just isn’t worth the risk. Even following a marathon training schedule I’ll try not to run with a cold. Instead, I take a rest day.

For those of you who don’t have this added complication, it’s still worth taking two days off from your training schedule when you first go down with a cold.

Why? You’ll recover faster.

I can’t back this up. Maybe someone somewhere has done the research and if so I’d love to hear about it. The issue is there are hundreds of different types of cold viruses with varying effects on our bodies. It’s probably impossible to come up with hard and fast answers about running with a cold.

Just think of it this way. If you take two days off, maybe just go for a stroll, by day three you should be feeling much better.

At this stage try an easy run. (If you have a heart rate monitor it’s a good idea to use it). Avoid higher-intensity workouts such as interval training until you’ve fully recovered.

Monitor your symptoms and if by the next day you’re still improving, you can ease back into training. This way you’ve only lost two or three days of running and your body may even benefit from the break.

Running in cold weather

You can’t catch a cold by running in wet or cold weather – you have to be exposed to the virus. But going for a long run on a cold day when a virus is already in your system puts too much stress on your body. You’re just not giving your immune system a fighting chance.

On cold runs, your body’s working hard to keep you warm and that mild cold may develop into something more serious.

If you persist in running with a head cold in the winter months – opt for warm running clothes, make sure you change out of wet clothes quickly after your run, and take a hot shower.

Be mindful of others

Nobody wants to catch your cold. If you insist on running with a head cold, keep well away from other people – running on a treadmill in the gym or in a crowded park just isn’t acceptable.

It can sometimes feel getting a head cold is a big deal when you’re following a training plan. Yet just taking a few days off from running to let your immune system fight off the cold can actually be a benefit, leaving you with fresh legs after a short break… I know this is a hotly debated topic and I’d love to know your views!

running with a head cold
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