You’re going to catch a cold this winter. It’s practically unavoidable. For most of us it’s not the worst thing in the world. – you can confine yourself to quarters with a box of tissues and a warm lemon drink and wait for it to pass. But if you’re a PB-seeking runner who’s rigorously following a marathon training plan or just need a regular injection of endorphins that only a run can provide, the temptation is to carry on regardless.
There’s plenty of advice on the internet to help you decide, including a commonly-cited rule of thumb (or should we say rule of neck): if the symptoms are confined to the head, the advice goes, you should be fine to lace up. Anything below the neck should mean an automatic rest day.
But when we dug deeper it wasn’t clear what that advice is based on, so we turned to Well Pharmacy and asked pharmacist Nick Thayer for the expert’s take.
The commonly-given advice is if the symptoms are confined to the head, and not the body, then it’s fine to run with a cold. Is that based on any evidence?
Colds are more common in winter months and there is some evidence that low temperatures can lower your body’s ability to fight off illness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop training.
Research has been conducted on whether you should exercise with a cold, but the results are mixed. Typically, it is safe to exercise at low to moderate intensity with “above-the-neck” symptoms – those of a common cold, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or sore throat.
However, I would advise people not to run with “below-the-neck” symptoms, such as chest congestion, a hacking cough or upset stomach. This is especially true in the winter for people with asthma – sufferers should take extra care because cold air can trigger symptoms. They are advised to use their inhaler before exercise and have it with them during activity.
The NHS advice is that people do not exercise if they have a fever, fatigue or widespread muscle aches. It will make you feel worse and there is a small chance that exercising with a fever can lead to the virus affecting your heart, which can be dangerous. It is important to remember that symptoms that affect the whole body are more likely to suggest flu rather than a cold, requiring more rest for recovery.
If you don’t have to run, should you avoid running if you have a cold?
There is evidence that shows moderate exercise stresses the body and can help stimulate your immune system, in turn creating anti-inflammatory responses. This means that moderate exercise can actually help you get better more quickly, so if you feel well enough to get out there and run, go for it. It is always important to know your limits and remember moderation is key. Too much stress on the body from exercise can mean it takes longer for you to recover.
There is also evidence that doing regular moderate exercise is beneficial in preventing a cold from developing in the first place. However, those who regularly do strenuous, intense exercise are slightly more susceptible to the common cold and should therefore take extra precautions to keep themselves well, such as maintaining a balanced diet and good hand hygiene.
If someone insists on running with a cold, is there anything they can do to mitigate the damage like wrapping up warm?
Cold air entering the lungs can worsen symptoms, so covering your mouth can help prevent this happening. Keeping hydrated is especially important when battling an infection, so make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Finally, if you are running with a cold then be cautious about which medicines you use. Some cold remedies contain antihistamines and these can affect your body’s ability to regulate temperature. If you are planning strenuous exercise, it’s best to avoid these medicines altogether. The pharmacist at your local pharmacy can advise you which products contain antihistamines.
How long should you leave it after you recover to start running again?
There is no clear-cut evidence on this, but you should listen to your body. Building yourself back up gradually to your usual fitness routine is recommended.