Exercise has many benefits and studies have shown that exercise like running can boost your immune system and improve symptoms of stress and anxiety.
If you have a cold or feeling under the weather, you may be wondering if running with a cold is recommended and safe.
You may even be tempted to run through a cold if you’re training for a long distance event, or have a training goal in mind.
It is generally accepted that moderate amounts of exercise improve your immune system functions, and hence reduce the risk of infection.
According to a 2019 study, athletes that engage in regular, prolonged and intense training have a higher than normal incidence of minor infections, especially of the upper respiratory tract (e.g. the common cold).
So what is the best way to manage a cold when you want to go for a run? When is it safe to start running again?
In this guide we’ll explore:
- What is a cold?
- Symptoms of a cold
- Is running with a cold good or bad?
- Side effects of running with a cold
- Exercise to do instead if you have a cold
- When is it safe to start running again following a cold?
- 4 tips to treat a cold
Let’s get started!
What is a cold?
A common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (otherwise known as the upper respiratory tract).
The common cold is usually harmless and you can expect to recover from one within 10 days.
If your symptoms don’t improve after 10-14 days, seek medical advice from your healthcare professional.
Healthy adults can expect to have a cold 2 to 3 times a year.
Related: Overtraining syndrome: 11 signs of overtraining when running
Symptoms of a cold
If you have a cold, you may experience a wide range of symptoms.
These symptoms include:
- A runny nose
- A sore throat
- Pressure in your ears and face
- Muscle aches and pains
- A raised temperature
These symptoms can last anywhere between 7 to 12 days, and your symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the severity of your cold.
People who smoke tend to take longer to recover from a cold.
Related: Hip pain after running: 8 causes + how to fix it
Is running with a cold good or bad?
Running with a cold depends on the severity and location of your symptoms.
The general rule of thumb is that if most of your symptoms are above your neck (e.g. runny nose, a sore throat), you should be fine to run.
If your symptoms are mostly below your neck (e.g. chest congestion, muscle aches and pains), then it’s advisable not to run.
The key is to listen to your body and take it easy when you do run.
If you’re used to doing intense workouts and long runs, then now is the time to dial it back a little to allow your immune system to fight the cold.
Consider decreasing the length and intensity of your run. Opt for light jogs and brisk walking instead of harder efforts.
When you can run
- Your cold is mild and you don’t have many symptoms. Your symptoms are located above your neck.
When it’s best not to run
- Your symptoms are located below your neck.
- Your symptoms are severe which may indicate a more serious sickness such as a fever (e.g. you are experiencing chest tightness and congestion, fatigue, muscle aches and pains or an upset stomach).
Related: Heavy legs when running: 8 common causes + 4 simple fixes
Side effects of running with a cold
Working out while sick has possible side effects and risks that you should be aware of.
The side effects of running with a cold may include:
- Worsening symptoms
- Difficulty breathing
It’s worth noting that you are more likely to experience these side effects if you don’t alter the intensity of your workout.
In addition, if you have a chronic condition like asthma, running may exacerbate your symptoms.
Related: 6 tips for successfully running with a chronic illness
Exercise to do instead if you have a cold
If you’ve decided to skip your run for the time being, but think you’re well enough to try different forms of exercise, then try one of the following:
The key is to find an exercise that you can do gently without putting too much stress on your body.
In other words, avoid any activities that require high levels of exertion.
Related: Cross training for runners: Benefits + 9 reasons to do it
When is it safe to start running again following a cold?
Cold symptoms typically start to improve after 7 to 12 days depending on the severity of your symptoms.
As soon as you start to feel better, the temptation is to go straight back into your normal running routine.
When in fact you’ll need to resume your running routine gradually, progressing slowly at regular intervals.
This is important so your body has enough time to recover after each workout as it will still be recovering following your cold.
Related: Knee pain after running: Causes + 10 prevention tips
4 tips to treat a cold
Here are some tips for treating a cold:
#1 Stay hydrated
When you have a cold, it’s important you stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids.
Fluids like water, tea and juice are recommended. Warm drinks like tea are especially beneficial when you have a cold.
Stay away from caffeine and alcohol during the recovery period as these can cause dehydration.
#2 Get plenty of sleep
When you’re in the midst of a cold, it’s important you get as much rest as possible to allow your body to recover.
According to Whitney Heins, VDOT-02 certified running coach, athletes need more sleep and by getting enough sleep runners will improve their training, motivation, mood and injury risk.
#3 Take cold medication
Cold medication can help to ease some symptoms of a cold like chest congestion, sore throat and headache.
Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about the best treatments.
#4 Gargle salt water
Salt water helps to flush away the mucus that lines the throat and helps to reduce inflammation.
Research still supports salt water gargling, and it is seen as an effective approach for treating a common cold.
Mix about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt to every 8 ounces of water. It’s best if the water is warm, as warm water helps to dissolve the salt in the water more easily.