Running With a Cold: Should You Do It?
Wintertime is the start of flu and cold season for many runners, especially the ones exposed to a lot of different people in their daily life.
When you come down with a severe illness, it’s a no-brainer to take time off from running.
But what about a more run-of-the-mill sickness? Is it all right to continue to run while you’ve got a cold?
This week we’ll be looking at a few studies that attempt to answer that question.
Looking at the research of running with a cold
The first paper we will examine was published in 2003 by Weidner and Schurr.1
Their study examined the effect of exercise on the course of a naturally-acquired upper respiratory infection—scientific speak for a cold.
All of the subjects in this study were university students at Ball State University who were not particularly active. They were evaluated by a doctor when they presented with the symptoms of a cold (stuffy nose, fatigue, a sore throat, etc.) and were screened to make sure they didn’t have a fever, more serious infection, or another medical condition as well.
They were then split into two groups, one that was instructed to exercise on a stationary bicycle, a stairmaster, or a treadmill at a moderate intensity for 30min for five of the next seven days, and another which was instructed not to exercise at all.
At the conclusion of the study there were no significant differences in the recovery time or the progression of the cold symptoms between the two groups.
It get’s better:
In fact, the exercise group had a slightly greater decrease in symptoms from the morning to the afternoon, meaning that the exercise perhaps aided their recovery throughout the day.
The duration it took for them to feel better, however, was no different than that of the sedentary (resting) group.
The most obvious flaw in Weidner and Schurr’s study is that there was no guarantee that all of the subjects had the same illness.
With only a dozen or so subjects in each group, it’s very possible that some could have one cold virus and some could have another. The obvious way around this is to actually infect all of the subjects in a study with the same cold virus. Since the common cold is not a particularly serious illness, this falls within the acceptable bounds of scientific ethics.
Is easy running better for me than resting?
Weidner’s group did another study with a similar design: Two groups of students with the common cold were assigned either to an exercise group or a non-exercise group, but this time, the students were voluntarily inoculated with a cold virus at the outset of the study.2
The students in this study were moderately active, not sedentary like the subjects in the first study.
In addition to surveying the students on the progression and severity of their symptoms over the subsequent days, the authors also collected and weighed the used facial tissues of the subjects—quite an interesting method of data collection!
In sum, the results were very similar to the first study: there was no difference in symptom severity or duration (or mass of tissues used) through the ten-day study.
Meaning that in theory, we are okay to complete light activity with a cold.
One issue remains, however: how does being sick affect your actual capacity to exercise? Are you any less fit when you’re sick?
How does running with a cold impact performance?
Weidner’s group at Ball State University conducted a third study to answer this question, again using a group of students voluntarily inoculated with a common cold virus.3
On the second day after infection—when cold symptoms usually peak—the subjects underwent a pulmonary function test and a graded exercise test to exhaustion.
These results were compared to both a baseline test taken before infection and to the results of a noninfected control group.
Check this out:
Surprisingly, this study also found no differences between the groups!
The aerobic capacity and lung functioning of the group with the cold was just as good as that of the control group (with no cold); their tests did not differ from the baseline measurements either.
Does that mean I can always run with a cold?
There isn’t any evidence that running with a mild or moderate cold like symptoms is going to make it any worse. There’s even evidence that you can expect the same level of fitness when you exercise while sick.
So, if you come down with a cold, don’t see it as an excuse to skip out on going for a run. On the flip side, however, forcing yourself through a workout while you’re sick isn’t going to speed up your recovery either.
Do keep in mind that these studies only tested fairly modest bouts of exercise (30min or so at a moderate intensity), not hard workouts or races.
It’s unclear what the effect of longer duration (or higher intensity) bouts would have on the course of an illness.
You’ll ultimately have to use your own judgment on when you are too sick to run, but the evidence suggests that a common cold is nothing to cancel your training over.
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1. Weidner, T.; Schurr, T., Effect of exercise on upper respiratory track infection in sedentary subjects. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2003, 37, 304-306.
2. Weidner, T.; Cranston, T.; Schurr, T.; Kaminsky, L., The effect of exercise training on the severity and duration of a viral upper respiratory illness. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1998, 30 (11), 1578-1583.
3. Weidner, T.; Anderson, B.; Kaminsky, L.; Dick, E.; Schurr, T., Effect of a rhinovirus-caused upper respiratory illness on pulomonary function test and exercise responses. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1997, 29 (5), 604-609.