Runners experience an entire range of emotions when they realize they are coming down with a cold or other illness. They may feel a sense of relief to be able to take a day or two off from running, immediately followed by a sense of dread that they may have to take a day or two off from running. Often, runners will experience mental anguish when trying to decide whether or not they should run when they are sick.
As a general rule of thumb, it is okay to run if the symptoms occur from the neck up. For instance, if you are suffering from a sore throat, clogged sinuses, or moderate headache, you may even find that running will help alleviate your symptoms. The key is to keep your running light and easy if you are feeling under the weather, because these symptoms indicate your immune system may be weakened, and a hard run could push your body towards exhaustion.
A runner should certainly avoid running if any of the following symptoms are experienced: fever, chills, body aches, diarrhea, nausea, upset stomach, migraine headaches, dizziness, or fatigue. The risks of running while experiencing these symptoms include the development of a more serious illness or injury, as well as delayed recovery. For instance, running increases core body temperature which makes running with a fever dangerous. Your body may be tricked into thinking that the illness is more serious than it actually is and shut down your organs in order to protect them. Additionally, running when your immune system is already severely weakened allows other illnesses to infect your body. When sick, you are likely to be dehydrated, and running will only add to that dehydration, which can leave you vulnerable to injury or worsened symptoms.
According to Runner’s World contributor Hal Higdon, a runner loses two days of fitness for each day of training that is lost. However, trying to push through an illness will ultimately cause more days of lost training. A runner should wait 1 – 2 days past the final day of symptoms before returning to training. Even then, the first few runs back should be relatively light and easy. Coming back too soon will increase the chances of relapse.
What can a runner do to minimize the amount of fitness lost while sick? If exercising is absolutely necessary, light sessions on a spin bike or in the pool are recommended. The sick runner should keep in mind that heart rate will increase more readily when ill, so even light exercise may feel difficult. 20 – 40 minutes spent aqua jogging or lightly biking can help maintain fitness during down time. Light stretching, yoga, or pilates can also be performed at home, and these exercises may even have benefits for decreasing recovery time.
Ultimately, a runner should remember to listen to his or her body when ill. Never try to force exercise if not feeling physically up for it, as doing so will only cause symptoms to worsen. In the end, a preventative day off can save many days of frustration!