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Should You Run When You're Sick?

Should you run when you are sick? With a virulent flu season underway, this age-old question merits new examination. The quick answer is “no.” Runners, however, can be a stubborn lot and we need to have some guidelines.

Here are the guidelines: If your symptoms are below the neck, take some time off to get well. If you have a chest cold, bronchial infection, sore throat, body aches, chills, vomiting, or diarrhea, don’t go for a run. (No, you can’t cross-train or hit the elliptical either.) Many of the above symptoms are part of a flu diagnosis. Your best shot is to hydrate and rest.

If you have a fever, don’t run. Fevers put extra stress on your body and heart when running because you are working harder to manage heat build-up. Every once in a while, some yahoo on the Internet insists that you can “burn up” a virus by running with a fever. It doesn’t work that way: running will not aid your immune system’s fight against a fever. Instead, you are liable to increase the length of your illness by putting your immune system under additional stress. Let me repeat: fever means stop.


Feeling like this?                                  You need to use this.

However, if you have symptoms above the neck, such as a runny nose or sneezing, running is still a possibility. In fact, you might be able to ease congestion by running. Exercise releases the natural decongestant, adrenaline. An easy run –– emphasis on easy –– might help to unclog your sinuses. Be careful, however, because adrenaline can make you feel better than your actual illness level. I recommend that rather than assessing how you feel immediately after a run, when you’re swimming in endorphins, that you wait until the next morning to assess. Still congested and sick? Take a day off and get some rest.

It turns out that the rules for running while sick are clear and easy to remember: above the neck equals easy running, while below the neck (especially with fever) equals a day on the couch.

Given that running while really sick is no fun, I guess the real question is this: Why do runners agonize about missing days due to illness? It’s completely counter-intuitive and contrary to the scientific evidence. Study after study has shown that one doesn’t lose any measurable running fitness for at least a week of inactivity. Moreover, running while sick can lengthen the journey to wellness. So why is it that runners are always trying to short-change their recovery and run when they are sick?

Here’s my theory. Running is a mood stabilizer. A lot of runners, including myself, feel blue when we miss runs even when we are not sick. It’s remarkable how a case of “the blahs” can be busted by going for a run. Illness is a “super blah” –– it depresses both our physical and psychological well-being –– and so we try to reach for what we know works (more running!).

Sometimes, though, that is a counter-productive strategy. There is no training program that is so finely-tuned that you can’t take some time off to recover from illness. In all likelihood, that extra rest will do you good. Be patient. Take the time off, get stronger, and you’ll be back out there in less time than you would if you had you tried to “run through it.”

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