Should You Run When You’re Sick?

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For the past week, I’ve been struck with a nasty cold which left me tired, groggy, and barely able to speak. Headaches, a runny nose, and lots of tissues have been my world so to speak. Nasty. You could say I had a bad case of ‘man flu.’

Despite being in a solid running routine, I found myself unable to run. I initially resisted the idea and tried going for a quick 3 miles, but after a few hundred metres I realised it was a stupid idea. As much as I didn’t like it, I just wasn’t up to it.

Whilst lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, I pondered the question: ‘should you run when you’re sick?’

Colds, flu and other illnesses

Colds, flu, and any other illness we get as humans aren’t fun but they’re just a part of life. Unless you have an iron immune system, there’s no escaping the fact. Most adults tend to have 2-4 common colds a year. Colds tend to last up to 9-10 days, with the worst symptoms after the first 2 days.

Why can being ill be a problem for runners?

Runners like to follow a routine and have some order in their training. Whether that order comes from following a marathon plan, running every other day or participating in a weekly parkrun, a sudden change in routine can be unsettling.

Marathoners worry their illness is stopping them hitting their weekly mileage target. Those who parkrun worry about a gap in their online record. Those in a running club worry about letting the other runners down. Simply put, being ill isn’t a fun place to be for a runner.

But the important question, should you run when you’re ill?

According to WebMD, you can exercise when ill if you have a mild cold but not with flu. A ‘mild’ sickness means symptoms are above the neck like a blocked nose and feel a little under the weather. The illness is uncomfortable and annoying, but you still feel ok and can function normally.

On the other hand, if the symptoms of your illness are severe and you literally can’t get out of bed, don’t go for a run. Symptoms could include an intense fever, muscle soreness, extreme fatigue, reduced appetite, and throwing up.
It might seem common sense not to exercise in situations of severe sickness, but common sense isn’t as common as you might think!

I really want to run but I’m too ill. What should I do?

it’s common or sick runners to feel frustrated and restricted. Being ill disrupts a well-established training routine, and can make you feel guilty for missing a weeks’ worth of training. All normal and understandable thoughts. Don’t worry about it. Seriously.

The best thing you can do is rest and allow your body to recover

Your body needs to prioritise its energy for fighting the infection and getting better. If you’re too ill, do yourself a favour and rest.

Stay hydrated, soothe a sore throat with medication, drink warm liquids, eat decent food, stay in bed, and sleep as much as possible. It will reduce recovery time significantly. If you do all these things, you’ll be better and in your running shoes in no time.

Possible negative consequences of running when you’re too ill

If you’re extremely ill with flu or severe cold yet decide you’re still going on your run, it can end badly. Here are a few of the possible negative consequences of running when you’re too ill to do so.

Raising body temperature– When we’re ill, our body temperature rises substantially. This is known as a fever. The body heats up to stimulate the immune system to fight off the infection more effectively.

Whilst a high temperature is a normal part of being ill, it can make you feel weary and tired. You might even sweat and get some nasty chills. Not ideal. The body uses up a lot of energy raising its temperature, so the best thing to do is sit out the run and let your body do its thing.

Prolonging the illness– Running is a hugely demanding sport. It uses up lots of energy and becomes the bodies priority for the duration of the run. Other bodily functions, like digestion, lose their priority as the body focuses on supplying glucose to meet the demands placed upon it during the run.

Whilst its fine to run when you’re well, running when extremely ill is not a good idea because it prolongs the illness. Instead of focusing on fighting the infection and healing, the body focuses on the demands of the run. Not ideal for a swift recovery.

Do yourself a favour and rest when you’re too ill. Don’t go for a run, let your body recover. When you’re better you can do all the running you want.

Passing on the illness to someone else– The common cold and flu are viral infections of the respiratory tract.
This means they are contagious and can be spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, and failing to wash hands frequently. If you run with others, you risk spreading your illness to them.

No matter how good friends you are with fellow runners, they won’t appreciate being given your cold. I promise you that! Take some time out and heal. Get better, plan runs for when you’re better, and don’t spread your illness to other runners.

Ways to benefit from taking a break from running during illness

Though it may not seem like it, there are plenty of ways to benefit from taking a break from running during a period of sickness. Just because you’re taking time out from running doesn’t mean you have to be unproductive.

Assess your training plan– A task runners often mean to get around to, but ‘never have the time’, it to look at their training plan and make amendments where necessary.

If you’ve been following a training plan for a month or two, there’s a good chance you’ve either progressed above and beyond the plan or you haven’t done as well as you thought.

Maybe you’ve found yourself running more miles with ease and need to change the weekly mileage to slightly higher. Perhaps the hill workouts aren’t working for you and you’re waking up the next day with legs like jelly. It could be time to lower these hill runs to once a fortnight rather than once a week.

When you’re ill, you’ll have some free time. Spend some of it assessing your training plan. It always pays to set your sail and then constantly check and re-adjust your sail when on course to achieving a goal.

Take time to pursue other projects– Running is a major project for many people. Not only does it take a lot of time and commitment, it’s also incredibly physically demanding. Being ill means you’ll be out of the running game for a while. Why not take some time to pursue other projects that aren’t physically demanding?

Maybe you’re practising for a piano or guitar exam, you might have a talent for drawing or painting, perhaps there’s that novel you’ve been meaning to read, or maybe you have some work to catch up on. Whatever your other project is, take some time to fully focus on it.

Doing so will make you feel good about giving attention to other areas in your life, and you won’t feel as guilty for not running when sick. At least you’re doing something productive.

Take some time to pursue other projects. Make sure they're challenging, but not too physically demanding. Piano is a great example!
Take some time to pursue other projects. Make sure they’re challenging, but not too physically demanding. Piano is a great example.

Relax– In the 21st century, everyone is always so busy. There are a thousand things to do, and not enough time to do it in. As a result, it’s easy to forget about some relaxation time. Time to reward yourself for the hard work you’ve been putting into life. Especially if you’re a hard-working runner.

Watch one of your favourite TV shows on Netflix, listen to an album by your favourite band and listen to the lyrics, cook and make one of your favourite healthy dishes. Take some time to relax and enjoy yourself. You’re ill and can’t run, so you should do something entertaining and enjoyable.

Get better soon and into those running shoes

Being ill is a difficult time for a runner, but it’s important for you to let yourself heal and have the time you need.

If you’re symptoms are mild and only causing slight discomfort, go for the run.

If they’re more extreme and causing huge discomfort, get in bed and rest. Go for your run when you’re better.


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