November 18, 2010

Is it safe to run with a cold?

I started this blog back at the end of August when I came down a terrible flu that literally had me in bed 3 days before a big race. I was not able to run at all that week and I was tremendously fearful I would have to post my first DNF. I’d put more hard work into my training in the prior 10 weeks than I ever had, setting goal after goal. Achieving finishing times, maintaining faster paces and running hills I had not considered possible before. Mile repeats, 2-mile repeats, tempo distance runs, speed drills - you name it, it’s likely to have been on my training schedule.  With the flu season already upon us, I wanted to finish this post and share my findings in an effort to keep all of us healthy as we begin preparing for our Spring races.

With a strong desire to set myself up to run the best race I was capable of running under those unexpected conditions, I did some deeper dives into research on running/exercise intensity, and found some interesting results. Yes, regular exercise strengthens your immune system in general, but did you know that intense exercise suppresses your immune systems for hours after you stop? Intense exercise changes various hormone concentrations in your body, resulting in some immune system suppression, most of which returns to normal in under 24 hours – however, some suppression of immune system function can last up to 3 days!

General guidelines suggest if your symptoms are above your neck, it is okay to maintain a moderate pace/distance schedule, but no intense workouts.  For most of us, “intense” exercise is either 90 min or more in length and/or exceeds 80-85% of your max heart rate. Moderate exercise is generally about 65-75% of your max and/or 60 minutes in duration at a maximum.

Many cold medications contain decongestants that work by reducing blood flow (and thus swelling) in your nasal passages. The side effect is dehydration. Fluids thin secretions and can soothe sore throats. Dehydration can worsen your symptoms, so be sure to drink more fluids than you do when you are healthy! By avoiding dehydration, you are more likely to experience milder symptoms and recover quicker.

Wondering if you should be taking the recommended 3-day rest and recovery period?
  1. Consider your symptoms first. General aches, runny noses, sniffles and sneezing are not show-stoppers, but consider reducing your volume and intensity for at least a few days or you risk worsening your symptoms and severity of your cold, including developing bronchitis or even pneumonia. The jury is out on sore throats – so why risk it? Take a few days off.
  2. Assess your level of energy. If you’re on the fence about whether to run or not, warm up for a few minutes and go for a light jog. If you’re feeling exhausted or unusually tired after a mile, listen to your body. It’s not ready for that energy demand. Make as many healing resources available to your body as possible (internal and external) and include lots of rest.
  3. Got a fever over 990 F, chills, a sinus infection or a hacking cough? Show stoppers indeed. No question about it.

Here’s to a healthy fall and winter training season!

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