Sick: to run or to rest?

We’ve all faced it: the decision of whether to run or to rest when we get sick. Unfortunately, those of us who train and run marathons know that our chances of getting sick increase as our mileage does. Pair that with the fact that it usually feels next to impossible to take an unscheduled rest day when you’re not technically “injured” and you have a recipe for disaster. 

I got sick more than usual this past winter. I usually get one or two colds and I’m done, but I’ve had a rough 6 months in the health department. I ran the RnR LV Half with an awful sore throat and later in December/January I talked ad nauseum about my crazy sinus infection, what I affectionately have called the plague, and my difficult runs afterward. Luckily I’ve been healthy since then but I knew that I probably had to suffer through one more cold before summer (I typically get sick one more time when the weather changes over in April/May…which sucks because it’ll be super nice out and I’m a sicko stuck inside). And as it happens every year, I got sick this week. It probably didn’t help that I’ve been traveling around Virginia to different high schools for a research project. Those kids are grimy!!!

So as you can gather, I’d been faced with this conundrum many times: should I run or rest? Most of us know about the “neck rule”, but it doesn’t hurt to provide a refresher. According to Runner’s World,

Symptoms below the neck (chest cold, bronchial infection, body ache) require time off, while symptoms above the neck (runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing) don’t pose a risk to runners continuing workouts. This view is supported by research done at Ball State University by Tom Weidner, Ph.D., director of athletic training research. In one study, Weidner took two groups of 30 runners each and inoculated them with the common cold. One group ran 30 to 40 minutes every day for a week. The other group was sedentary. According to Weidner, “the two groups didn’t differ in the length or severity of their colds.” In another study, he found that running with a cold didn’t compromise performance. He concluded that running with a head cold–as long as you don’t push beyond accustomed workouts–is beneficial in maintaining fitness and psychological well-being.

In other words, if you have “below the neck” symptoms like fever, fatigue, muscle aches, vomiting, chills, or coughing then you shouldn’t run. Running with a virus and these symptoms can lead to further dehydration and a more serious illness. One good option for head cold or sinusitis sufferers, according to Runner’s World, is pool running or aqua jogging (<– my doctor is gonna love that! he’s always telling me to aqua jog in the pool!): “The water adds moisture to nasal passages,” says John J. Jacobsen, M.D., an allergist in Mankato, Minnesota. Pool running is preferable to swimming, says Dr. Jacobsen, because chlorine can be irritating to the nose. I’ve been meaning to finally force myself to go aqua jogging and then do a post on it, so this is probably my chance.

Ultimately, those who are sick and continue to run, like I do most of the time, walk a fine-line and risk making their illness worse. So it all goes back to the golden rule of listening to your body.

Yea, I don’t have the best track record with that.

But at least I’m powerful, right? 😉

I went for a run today on the Rivanna path between Riverview and Darden Towe Parks even though I’ve had a wicked bad headache, a minor sore throat, and some fatigue.

Grinning and bearing it...and wearing one of my Boston hats in honor of Marathon Monday in 3 days!

It was only 5 1/2 miles, and it wasn’t easy, but I got the mental satisfaction from getting out there. And that counts for something, right?

And wanting to be healthy, I sought out a salad for dinner. Do you know who has great salads in a pinch? Chick-Fil-A. No joke. They are always super fresh and come with sunflower seeds which are soooo good. A greek yogurt on the side rounded out dinner.

I’m off to rest up and try to get over this cold so I can do some fun stuff this weekend. And keep an eye out for a special guest series from my twin sister about returning to distance running starting tomorrow!

How do you decide whether to run or rest when you are sick?

Have you ever aqua jogged? 

Disclaimer: All of the information I present is from personal research and/or experience. The views I express are mine alone and while I believe whole heartedly in the accuracy of what I present, it should not be taken as medical advice

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12 Responses to Sick: to run or to rest?

  1. kaitwatts says:

    Usually I just listen to my body. I try to remember the holistic rule of training-that it is everything leading up to the race that counts, not just a single run. Most times it is better to rest than risk getting more sick, but the mental battle always ensues when this occurs. I hate when I am not sick enough to be in bed all day, but just sick enough to feel lousy. It doesn’t make it easy.

  2. krisranhere says:

    I just started aqua jogging tonight for the first time ever and I’ve been battling a yucky head cold so this post is spot on for me. I honestly thing the chlorine cleared it up a bit. My rule is if its above the neck…run. Sometimes the run helps. If you are coughing though, the running usually makes the cough worse so I skip it then. I must remember to check out Chickfila salads next time I am there. Oh and Virginia kids (like mine) are grimey! 😉

    • Did you???? I keep meaning to try it but haven’t. I’m so curious about whether it is worth it but it sounds like it is!

      Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that your kids were grimey 😉 Just, you know, that schools overall have a lot of germs (I say that as a former high school history teacher). I swear I always seem to catch everything

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  3. i always wonder if i should run when sick too!! so thank you so much for this post 🙂 and i hope you feel better real, real soon

  4. katiemoves says:

    wow- thanks this post helped me out a lot too! Sometimes I don’t know when to say no to working out whether it be I’m kinda sick or semi-injured. I guess that’s the athlete’s brain…. sometimes we forget to do what’s best for our bodies and choose it for the mental reason of us HAVING to get our workout in. And not gonna lie- totally wanna try aqua jogging now haha

  5. Running when sick can be a pretty tricky thing for me. I have asthma, so even the tiniest cold can blow up into something that will keep me home from work. But like you said, generally if its concentrated in the head then I’m okay to run. However, when I start feeling fatigued and lethargic, I know it’s time to cuddle up in bed.
    I have tried aqua jogging, but only a few times. Again, something i know i should do often, but still never do 🙂

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