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3 Things to Consider Before Running While Sick

Runners hate having to skip a few days of training, but when you're sick, it can make all of the difference for faster recovery.

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This has been a year of hyper-vigilance when it comes to our health. In 2020, choosing to go running while sick carries a bit more weight than it ever has. 

Most of us have been monitoring the status of just about any symptom we might have way more than in cold and flu seasons past. Which begs the question: Have we been prone to pushing ourselves too hard in the past? Have we been too laissez faire when it comes to health and training? 

While we’re still fighting the global pandemic, it’s imperative that you pay attention to any concerns around contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus (keep up the social distancing and mask wearing). But colds, flus, and other respiratory illnesses did not magically disappear this year (hence all the public health marketing around the importance of this year’s flu shot). So we’re taking a look at what you need to know about training during cold and flu season now and in the future. Here are three things to take into consideration before running while sick: 

Rest Is So Important

A general rule of thumb is to take time off from training when you have symptoms below the neck (sore throat, cough, body aches) and definitely if you have a fever. If you feel a cold coming on, taking an extra rest day shouldn’t hinder your training progress. And even several rest days won’t affect your fitness level. 

Although running while sick isn’t always a no-no, like if your symptoms are localized only to your head (think congestion or sinus-related symptoms). “If your symptoms are above the neck and you feel up to it, you’re not completely drained and tired, then it’s reasonable to exercise,” says Dr. Carrie Jaworski, a board-certified physician in family and sports medicine. 

On the flipside, if you only have a head cold and choose to go for a run, but return feeling worse, then that is also a sign that you should take a break. 

It can be hard to take time off from running (especially if you’re in a training cycle where it seems that every run is critical). But during cold and flu season it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and take time off early and often. 

Pushing yourself to run when you have those ‘below the neck’ symptoms can prolong your illness and put stress elsewhere. “The body has to shift gears and focus on [the run] and it puts a lot of stress on the body, particularly the heart,” says Dr. Jaworski. “That doesn’t necessarily cause myocarditis, but it does put the heart under stress and cause the heart to have to work harder which could then cause arrhythmia and other cardiac conditions could be uncovered because of it.” In general, she says running while sick is just not worth the risk.  

Just let your body recover the way it knows how. Chances are if you rest early and often you won’t be sidelined as long as if you try to push through a cold.

Keep Up With Fluids And Nutrition

It’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re sick for physiological and behavioral reasons. Your body is burning calories and using metabolic reserves to fight off the infection, which can dehydrate you. This is especially true if you have a fever, says Dr. Jaworski. 

People also just tend to not be very good at hydrating when they are sick. Especially if you are laying in bed all day, you are probably not refilling your water bottle as often as you would if you are up and moving around. So, try to be mindful during cold and flu season to hydrate a little more than usual with water or hot tea. And make sure you are fully rehydrated before returning to running after an illness. 

Adding extra vitamin C into your diet with foods that are high in it can also be helpful in keeping your immune system supported. “There’s been some studies that say zinc is helpful,” says Dr. Jaworski. And though that research is still relatively new, it couldn’t hurt to eat some extra zinc-rich foods to try and shorten your recovery time. 

Foods that are high in vitamin C:

  • Red and green peppers
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Grapefruit
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomato juice
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Potatoes

Foods that are high in zinc:

If You’ve Been Running While Sick, Know When to Call Your Doctor

If any cold or flu symptoms persist check in with your doctor. If you have any cardiac-related symptoms come on while running, that is also a sign that you need to see an expert. “[If] you start developing shortness of breath, more than just being tired and winded from working hard, or you develop any heart palpitations (any funny heart beats or irregular feeling in your chest, whether that be chest pain or irregular heart beats), wheezing, anything more substantial should absolutely prompt you to stop and get further evaluated,” says Dr. Jaworski. 

Remember, there’s no shame in slowing down. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly what the body needs.

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