Should I Still Train When I’ve Got a Cold?

Posted: Oct 25 2013

I’ve heard people in the past say things like “so and so does loads of exercise and she’s always getting ill” as if it’s an excuse to not exercise. First of all, lets debunk that myth. Regular exercise is proven to raise the immune system and will help you to avoid getting colds. It also has a myriad of other health benefits too, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and more.

However, it is also true that intense training can have the opposite effect. This is because taking your body to the limit puts it under a lot of stress that needs recovery time. However, most “regular” people won’t fall into this category, this is more the domain of the professional athlete and the die-hard.

So if you’re simply exercising to keep fit then relax and know that you’re less likely to suffer from a cold. If you do get one, best advice is to rest up and then resume your exercise program when you feel better. Simple really. But not for those of us who train up for something specific! I’m talking here about crazy people like marathon runners. This is where the fear of deviating from your schedule and losing out on valuable training miles far overweighs any form of common sense and thoughts of “resting”. Trust me, I’ve been there. I suffered with the sniffles for 5-days in March while training for the London Marathon and to listen to me you’d have thought the world was going to end… So if you’re marathon training or similar and you get a cold what should you do? Let’s explore the options:

Option 1 – Rest

A cold is a stress on your body. And so is training. Both at the same time means your body has to cope with two stresses, which means that what could have been just a few days off might become a few weeks.

If you’ve got a cold you won’t be able to train at a level that will benefit your training anyway, whereas resting properly will help you to get rid of it quicker and so get back to proper training sooner.

I’ve read it countless times, and been told it several more, that “a week off will not affect your conditioning”. However, advice like that just doesn’t sink in to a mid-program marathon runner. What they actually hear is “a week off will bring you right back to square one”.

Option 2 – Ease Up

There’s an often-quoted study sponsored by the American College of Sports Medicine that found “moderate” exercise does not affect the severity or duration of a cold. So if you do insist on sticking with the training, then you should, of course, throttle the effort back to “moderate”.

This will come more naturally to people who train with a heart rate monitor. Your heart rate will be higher anyway as your body uses energy to fight the virus that causes cold, so you’ll be bouncing on the ceiling of your target heart rate at a much lower training intensity, while still getting in some valuable training miles. (Have you seen our brilliant heart rate training calculator?)

Option 3 – Keep on going regardless

I know plenty of stubborn runners who’ll choose this option! And just to muddy the waters slightly, it is possible that a good work out in the fresh air will raise the metabolism, blow the cobwebs away, cheer you up and help you fight off a virus.

There’s an unwritten rule that says if symptoms stay above the neck then it’s ok to run, although NOT if you have a temperature. However, I can’t see that any form of high intensity training when your body is feeling under the weather will be good for you, so I really can’t recommend this option.

In summary – listen to your body

Back in March I went with option 1. I took a few days off and as soon I felt better I was back to training and doing my best to make up for lost time. I don’t pretend to be an expert, I’m just someone who’s done a lot of running, but in the long run I’m sure this is the better option.

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