Should You Run with a Head Cold?
You have no-doubt experienced the unpleasant symptoms of a head cold before; the stuffed or runny nose, headaches, sore throat, general aches, pains and overall lack of energy.
None of these symptoms are particularly conducive to running, or at least feeling good enough to expect a great workout!
Many head cold sufferers will be content to give running a miss until they feel better.
But what about if you have the pressure of training for an important race in the near future? Perhaps you feel the need to run for your mental health.
What should you do?
If you have mild head cold symptoms that remain above the neckline, and don’t include a deep sore throat, chesty cough, phlegm production or bronchitis type symptoms, it is usually safe to run.
However if you have a high temperature, fever, or any of the above mentioned symptoms that would indicate that the cold has moved to your chest, or stomach, you should rest and focus on recovery.
Here’s a simple guide for you to follow:
|Cold Symptom||Should You Run?*|
|Nasal Congestion||Run easy up to 30-mins|
|Runny Nose||Run easy up to 30-mins|
|High Sore Throat||Run easy up to 30-mins|
|Deep/Low Sore Throat||Do not run|
|Sneezing||Run easy up to 30-mins|
|Coughing||Do not run|
|Phlegm Production||Do not run|
|Upset Stomach||Do not run|
|High Temperature||Do not run|
|Fever||Do not run|
|Muscle/Joint Aches||Do not run|
*Always stop if your symptoms get worse
I’ve often heard this simple approach to deciding whether or not to run referred to as the “neck rule”. If symptoms only exist above the neck, it is typically safe to run with a head cold, so long as you take it easy.
Will Running with a Cold Make it Worse?
Let’s look at this objectively for a moment. Whether you simply have a head cold, or you feel the symptoms tracking down into your chest, indicating something like bronchitis or a chest infection, your immune system is going to be working harder than usual.
Your immune system is truly amazing. But it would really appreciate a helping hand when the going gets tough.
We can help our immune system out by doing all the obvious things like eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. Hopefully you’ve got them covered!
However the biggest thing we can do to aid our immune system is simply not becoming our own worst enemy…
When your immune system is working overtime, for example when you have a cold, the last thing it needs is to have extra stress placed on your body. From a runner’s perspective this extra stress can come in the form of intense (or particularly long) training sessions.
If you have a head cold and feel up to running, focus on short, easy paced runs. Keep the effort levels really low, wrap-up warm, and aim to cap the run at 30-minutes in duration.
Ignore your pace. Now is not the time to worry about the speed you’re running for the given effort. Chances are that your cold symptoms will mean that your pace for the given effort level is a little slower than you’d expect.
Blame the illness 😉
However, if your symptoms have moved down to your chest, you really must rest and allow your immune system the chance to do its job without the extra stress brought about by training.
Generally speaking, “chesty” symptoms are a sign of a more serious cold which will be harder for your body to fight-off.
If you refuse to rest and give your body adequate opportunity to recover from a chest infection, complications such as pneumonia become a real risk, and that really would put a big dent in your training.
Once symptoms have taken hold, a week of looking after yourself, eating well and some early nights will do you the world of good.
You’ll be back to running in no time, with minimal loss of fitness if you simply obey the neck rule!
If you decide not to run, perhaps try some light injury prevention training instead:
Had this dilemma just last week, and man, am I glad I took four days off to rest my lungs instead of pushing it. I came back slow, but save for hacking up some phlegm, I feel great.
You just can’t outrun lung issues, and if you push too hard, they get way worse way fast.
This is actually quite interesting.
I have a weakened immune system due to an illness I had when I was 18, so running and training in the winter is always a struggle for me.
I’ve actually had a minor cold (blocked nose and minor headache) for the last couple of days and have been fine to go out and do 4.5miles but two weeks ago when I had manflu I couldn’t do anything. Just had to see it out with no running and then eased back in slowly.
Great article, many thanks.
Good advice, I’d qualify the “MUST see a doctor” though, if a cough isn’t settling after 4-5 days, lasts more than three weeks, or if symptoms of fever last or worsen after 4-5 days consider seeing a doctor.
If you see a doctor with earlier symptoms you’ll potentially end up with antibiotics for a viral infection, useless and creating community antibiotic resistance.
Viral sore throats & bronchitis are self limiting & get better on their own, they are massively over treated with pointless antibiotics.
That’s cool. I generally apply the rule without knowing the basic rule that you have stated. It’s good to be aware of the (neck) theory.
I hope you can also write about eloctrolytes for marathoners.
I feel like I have problems with keeping hydrated.
Thanks in advance.
Keep up the good work.