Running When You’re Sick

Ah, Flu Season. Noses are running, heads are clogged, core temperatures are rising, how lovely ? This year has been a particularly bad up here in Washington. I personally have been sick for 15 days and am currently laid up on the couch with a new fever that blindsided me after 10 days of feeling like I was on the mend. Many other people I know have been sick for 2 to 4 weeks, which was confirmed by my medical provider as the general length of “the bug” this year. It’s certainly not enjoyable and if you’re a runner, you hate being a sweaty cooped up mess.

So what’s the rule of thumb for running when you’re sick? Well, I’m not a medical doctor myself, far from it, but from the various Doctors I’ve talked to and literature I’ve read, here are some guidelines:

First off, know that you are at a higher risk for infection following high mileage weeks and big, challenging workouts or races, especially those exceeding one and a half hours. Your immune system will be temporarily suppressed, which leaves you vulnerable to picking up viruses. If you want to train at a high level, that’s part of the risk. But you can limit your chances of getting sick by eating a balanced, healthy diet and staying hydrated every day. Also, always remember to wash your hands regularly with mild soap and don’t touch your face, especially if you work with the public.

Now, if you do get sick with a common virus, you’re most likely going down one of two roads. One road will leave you with a sore throat, runny nose, congestion and stuffiness: the common head cold. With the common cold exercise can be done barring any long runs or hard workouts you haven’t tried before. In fact, going for an easy run can even make you feel better and clear your sinuses by releasing endorphins and epinephrine. Just remember to slow things down and go by feel, not pace.

The other road? Symptoms below the neck. And if it’s below the neck, it’s best to rest. If you have chest congestion, cough, fever, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea,  it’s best to rest and stay hydrated until your symptoms have subsided. Always check in with your general practitioner if you’re feeling unsure about your symptoms. Remember, it takes at least 10 days to start losing any fitness you’ve gained, so don’t be afraid to play it safe by resting for a couple days. Remember that running too hard or too soon following these types of infection can result in lingering symptoms which could last anywhere from days to months, so it’s always good to slowly ease back into training.

Of course, everybody is different and “We are each an experiment of one.” I know some runners who continue to run with any and all symptoms until they resolve on their own, while other runners, like myself, have gone for a 4 hour run with below the neck symptoms only to be stuck with lingering fatigue and mild fever that lasted for well over a month.

In closing, I’ll say again that your best bet is to check in with your Doctor if you’re unsure about the symptoms you’re experiencing and for most of us; if it’s below the neck, it’s best to rest.