It happens to us all. You go to bed feeling great, then wake up with a sore, scratchy throat, stuffed-up nose – and you’re struck with a cold. Then you’re faced with a decision: should I run with a cold or wait for it to clear up before heading out again?
The truth is, it depends. There’s no straightforward answer, although it’s probably best to go with a reflexive “no” and err on the side of caution. But it’s tough to stop your training, whether you’re running to stay fit or have a big race on the horizon.
Here’s what you need to know about running with a cold. We’ll cover the pros and cons of running with a cold, plus some tips if you do decide to head out.
Should You Run With a Cold?
The simple answer is “no”. When you’re sick, even if it’s mild, your body automatically uses a lot of its energy to fight what’s making you sick. You will have a lot less energy for other things – like running.
So we highly recommend taking your foot off the gas when you’ve got a cold. That said, we know how hard it can be to skip your daily run when you aren’t feeling too bad, so keep reading to find out how to make a more informed decision.
How to Know When You Can Go for a Run?
Here are some quick ways to figure out if you should head out for a run or not when you are sick.
The Neck Check
Check your symptoms and figure out if they are “above the neck”—in the head and face—or “below the neck”—chest or stomach?
In most cases, head and face symptoms are considered mild, while anything below the neck is likely more severe.
Above-the-neck symptoms include a runny or congested nose, sneezing, a sore throat, or a headache. As long as your headache is manageable with the bounce of a run, you should be able to run if these are your only symptoms.
Above-the-neck symptoms that should be taken more seriously are dizziness or lightheadedness, a sign of low blood pressure or other more serious conditions, and a severely congested nose. Generally, exercise will clear a stuffy nose, but if it doesn’t, the cold may progress to something more severe.
Skip the run and opt for rest if you have below-the-neck symptoms like coughing, chest tightness or congestion, nausea or diarrhea, body aches, fatigue, and fever.
How’s Your Energy Level?
Fatigue is a common cold symptom. Feeling drained means your body sends most of its energy to the immune system to fight the cold. So if you head out the door to run, expect you’ll feel tired for the rest of the day.
Check how you feel and consider whether you have enough energy for the day. If you have a busy day ahead, you might want to conserve your energy, but if you have space to rest, you might feel like a run is doable.
Have You Taken Cold Medication?
If you’ve been feeling bad enough to take medication for your cold, we recommend skipping the run. This is often the biggest mistake because you tend to feel much better after taking meds!
But while your symptoms may subside, many cold medications can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, or make you drowsy. Painkillers may also hide important signs your body is trying to tell you.
Going for a run under these conditions can be dangerous, so if you’ve downed some meds, stay home and let them do their work.
Rest vs. Running: Decision-Making Process
Remember, rest and recovery is also an important part of training. The art of running is balancing the exercise with the recovery, and when you’ve got a cold, your body naturally needs more of the recovery and less of the exercise.
Keep the bigger picture in mind. It’s tempting to push through when you’re feeling bad because you can “catch up on rest” after your event. But consider the longer-term effects—how will missing a day or two of training affect you going forward, compared to pushing through and potentially feeling worse?
The decision is yours. But your health is more important than the outcome of your next race… Remember, if you push through, it can impact you far worse in the long run than taking a few days off.
Can Running Help Ease Cold Symptoms or Help You Get Better?
Yes, running can help to relieve certain cold symptoms. Nasal congestion is one of those, as the increased flow of oxygen clears the sinuses and helps mucus to drain.
It can also relieve headaches, thanks to endorphins that get released when you exercise. Thanks to increased circulation, you may feel slightly more energized immediately after a run.
However, there’s also always that chance of pushing yourself too far and worsening your symptoms. Here are some pros and cons to help you decide.
Pros of Running
A light, easy run can:
- Alleviate mild cold symptoms.
- Improve circulation and speed up recovery.
- Boost your mood thanks to endorphins.
- Boost the immune system and circulate white blood cells.
- Give you peace of mind that you’re still staying fit.
Cons of Running
But there’s a chance that it will:
- Make your symptoms worse.
- Tire you out and deplete your energy.
- Extend your recovery time.
- Expose you to more germs.
- Lower your immune system even more.
Tips for Running with a Cold
Decided to go for that run and not lie in bed? Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your run without worsening things.
Go for a Short Run
Don’t head out for a long run when you aren’t feeling good. If you’re intent on still exercising, go for a shorter run than usual so you’ll get out without over-stressing your body.
Also, if you feel unwell during your run and want to stop, it’ll help to be closer to home rather than far away on a long run.
Scale Back On Your Normal Pace
As well as going light on mileage, ease up on your pace. Pushing yourself too hard will deplete your body of the energy it needs to fight the cold when you get back home, so have a very relaxed run and keep energy in the tank for later.
Dress Warmly in Layers
Carry the Essentials
No, we don’t mean energy chews this time! Take what you need for your cold, like tissues, hand sanitizer, and anything else that might make your run more comfortable for you with your symptoms.
Avoid Crowded Areas
There’s always a chance of infecting someone else with your cold. But there’s also a chance of someone else infecting you with another virus on top of the cold you already have… And in your weakened immune state, you won’t have any protection.
If you’re determined to run, avoid crowded places. Make sure they’re still safe spots, and tell someone where you plan on running.
You could also opt to run early in the morning or later at night when fewer people are around.
Warm Up and Cool Down
Ensure You’re Well-Hydrated
Hydration is always important, but it’s crucial during your run. When your body is fighting something, it needs all processes to work seamlessly, and just about every process in the body requires water. Make sure you stay hydrated before, during, and after your run.
Pay Attention to Your Breathing
If you experience any difficulty breathing, even mild strain, consider ending your run. Putting strain on your cardiovascular system can open it up to worse symptoms or overload it completely, leading to worse health scares.
Plus, your body needs oxygen to perform any functions optimally, so any breathing difficulties will make running even harder.
Keep Track of How Your Body Feels
Stay mindful of how your body is responding to the run. There’s a chance that your symptoms will start to improve. But there’s also a chance that you’ll feel worse, so we advise stopping your run and choosing to rest instead.
After Your Run, Prioritize Rest and Recovery
If you manage to get through your run, take some time out afterward to rest and allow recovery to take place.
If possible, take it fairly easy for the rest of the day—reduce physical activity, rest your body and cardiovascular system, and do gentle stretching and breathing exercises to stimulate recovery.
Focus on Recovery Nutrition
What you eat during this time can help you to recover faster. Focus on nourishing your body with healthy, whole foods. Fruits and leafy greens provide antioxidants that can help you recover faster. Avoid sugar as much as you can, for it feeds infection!