To run, or not to run?

My Great Race 10k bib went unused this year.  In the week leading up to the race, I came down with a cold. Nothing major – no fever, no chills, no decrease in appetite (the appetite is the key metric of how sick I am!), and only slightly lower energy than normal.
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A question I commonly get is… “Should I still work out when I’m sick?”  Given my own situation with the Great Race, I thought this is an appropriate time to answer this one!
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One of the more common philosophies when it comes to training when sick is the “above or below the neck” symptom question, which basically states that if your symptoms are mostly from the neck up (ie, congestion, stuffy nose), you may be ok to workout, but if your symptoms are below the neck (body aches, fever) you should rest.  I am completely on board with the second half of that statement.  If you’ve got the flu or something that has you down with a fever (strep throat, stomach virus), then rest… probably more than one day. It’s the first “above the neck” symptom part I’m a little wishy washy on, and I think it comes down to recognizing and respecting your own limits.
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As a health coach and someone who has a huge interest in holistic wellness, my take on this may be a little more conservative than others.  I am a huge proponent of “listen to your body.”  You should not work out or race out of obligation to your training plan or training partner/group, or to avoid the guilt of a missed workout if your body is saying “no”.  Everyone hates to see those workouts on Training Peaks turn to red (for incomplete), or to know that a workout has gone unfinished.  People worry about the impact that a missed workout (or a few) will have on their training progress.  But, more often than not, taking a day or a few off will mean a faster recovery and a faster return to normal training than if you try to push through it.  Let’s say you aren’t feeling well on Monday, so you skip Monday and Tuesday’s workouts.  There’s a good chance that you may be ready to work out again on Wednesday.  On the other hand, if you are starting to feel the chills or sore throat coming on on Monday, and push through a workout, you may end up sidelining yourself past Wednesday.
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Here’s a bit of the science behind it:  Did you know that exercise naturally increases cortisol production in your body?  It’s an evolutionary mechanism to help us deal with stressful situations, such as escaping predators or dangerous situations.  Your body doesn’t know that you are running (or biking, or cross-fitting, or whatever) by choice; it simply recognizes that you are in high activity mode and starts increasing cortisol to cope with the physical stress.  While cortisol has beneficial effects in the right doses (it is a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller), one of the downsides of cortisol is that it suppresses the immune system and its ability to fight off illness.  If your immune system is already struggling to fight off a cold, the cortisol further suppresses your immune system, which often means you’ll end up making things worse by working out.  (Another downside: if you aren’t feeling your best, you may feel sluggish or not hit your target pace/power for your workout and feel disappointed about that!)
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If you feel mostly over your cold/sickness, and you want to workout, I recommend shortening or lowering the intensity of a workout.  It’s better to test the waters with an easy, 30 minute aerobic run than a 5 mile tempo run.  One thing to be aware of when doing this:  You know how you get that post-workout endorphin blast (aka the runner’s high)?  That may kick in during or right after the workout, and you feel good – and think you are in the clear.  But a few hours later, or the next morning even, you’ll feel worse.  That’s your body’s way of saying, “Nope, I wasn’t ready to do that kind of workout.”  Maybe you don’t feel up to a long run or interval bike workout, but you DO feel like a walk around the neighborhood or a yoga class.  Both of these are a way to be active without putting the stress on your body of a hard workout.
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So, back to my decision to skip the Great Race.  I’d had a few lousy nights of sleep due to nasal congestion and coughing leading up to the race.  I felt alright on Saturday, but when my alarm went off on Sunday morning, I knew my body was saying “no”.  While I’d been looking forward to the Great Race, it wasn’t a priority race for me this year.  I’m training for my first Spartan (obstacle) race in mid-October, and my main priority right now is training for that, which requires being healthy!  The Great Race will be there next year, and the risk of pushing myself through a 10k (even if a fun pace and not a race pace) and feeling worse wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.  I turned off my alarm and snuggled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep.
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In a nutshell, it all comes back to “listen to your body”.  Athletes hate to be sick and miss workouts, but it is necessary to know your limits. Give yourself permission to miss a workout (or a few) and focus on resting so you can feel better and get back into the training routine sooner.  Ease back into your training, and don’t be afraid to shorten workouts or drop down on intensity. Working with a coach can help to guide you through training when sick, rearrange training plans due to illness, and reassure you that it’s ok to miss some training or scale back.

One thought on “To run, or not to run?

  • September 28, 2017 at 3:17 am
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    Great points and looking forward to hearing you speak at Ladies Night at Pro Bike + Run in November.

    Reply

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