Winter is here, which means cold and flu season is upon us.
While proper preventive measures can reduce your chances of getting sick, unless you plan on spending the entire season in a plastic bubble, you’re likely to be exposed to a virus at some point or another. Eventually, you’ll probably need to ask yourself this question: Should I run when I’m sick?
The short answer? It depends.
When your body is busy fighting off an infection, it’s all hands on deck. In other words, using valuable energy and resources to go running takes away from the energy your body can use to get you better, which might mean a longer recovery time. The more severe your symptoms, the more likely it is that you should take a day off training and rest.
However, that being said, I know how hard it is to take a break from running. Even though your nose may be a drippy mess and your throat might feel like you swallowed sandpaper, sometimes you just can’t ignore the itch to run. It can be even more frustrating when you’re preparing for an event!
So, assuming that you’ve got enough energy to go for an easy jog (definitely save the hard workout for another day), use the guidelines below to help you decide if running is the right thing to do.
There is a basic neck rule that every runner should now. This rule is based on the location of your symptoms. Before going on a run, you have to assess how you feel and determine whether your symptoms are above or below the neck.
If all symptoms are above the neck (i.e., stuffy nose, sinus pain, sore throat, or swollen glands), it should be OK to exercise. It might not be fun, but sometimes exercise can actually help relieve head congestion because your airways open up to allow for increased respiration when your heart rate increases (just make sure you have lots of tissues handy). Be careful, however, if you’ve taken cold medication – sometimes it can disrupt your equilibrium and cause dizziness, which is definitely not something you want when you’re running on the treadmill or near traffic.
Symptoms below the neck (i.e., cough, chest congestion, upset stomach, or digestive issues) mean that you should probably stay in bed and rest. Why? Because respiratory symptoms in the lungs will impede your body’s ability to transfer oxygen to your muscles. In other words, running is going to be difficult. Really difficult. Your airways will already be irritated, and the elevated breathing required for running will cause further irritation, possibly resulting in coughing, a lot of discomfort, lightheadedness, or dizziness. Stay in bed, drink lots of fluids, and allow your body to do its job.
Digestive issues can also wreak havoc on a runner. Your stomach and intestines require blood flow to keep things moving properly. Running diverts blood circulating in the digestive system to places where it’s needed immediately: the muscles. This means that, if you’re already feeling a little queasy, going for a run can actually make you feel a lot worse. Not to mention the fact that, if your stomach has been feeling upset recently, it’s likely that you’re undernourished and dehydrated, both of which can result in really uncomfortable running experience. Stay home and rest until everything is back to normal, and take it slow when you do start back up again.
If you do decide to get your workout in, make sure to scale back your pace and level of effort until you’re close to 100% better. After an illness, your body will likely still be healing, even when your symptoms are almost gone. At this point, a killer workout will just delay your overall recovery. Yes, you might be able to suffer through it, but is it worth it when it means you might relapse or need an extra few days to really feel normal again? Allow yourself a day or so of easy workouts before you get back to your regular routine.
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