…what is a runner to do?
by: Green Mountain Rehab & Green Mountain Running Medicine Shop
Runners are often obsessive about sticking to their training plans. We will run in rain, wind, snow and sleet. We will run in sub-zero temperatures, at insanely early hours of the morning or late into the night. Whatever it takes to keep our training on track.
Unfortunately, the winter months pose a special challenge beyond the harsh weather conditions and lack of daylight – cold and flu season. An illness in the middle of your training can be very frustrating and anxiety-provoking.
The good news for runners is that a consistent level of moderate exercise can actually have an immune-building effect. However, high-intensity workouts (interval or tempo workouts) or endurance workouts >90 minutes can actually leave your immune system depleted temporarily (for anywhere from a couple hours up to 72 hours), therefore making you more susceptible to illness during that time.
The best advice for runners is to take preventative action to avoid getting sick:
-regularly wash your hands and clean your workstation
-get enough sleep
-make sure you are giving your body enough recovery after challenging workouts
-take one day completely off each week
-eat a well-balanced diet
-manage stress levels
Ok, so most of us know all that already. What many of us struggle with is the decision that arises once we are already sick: “when am I too sick to run?”
To answer this question, you must first figure out if your symptoms are above or below the neck. If they are above the neck – sniffles, scratchy throat, sneezing, mild congestion, it is probably safe to run. In fact, the adrenaline released on a run can actually help to clear the nasal passages. However, it is recommended to keep the intensity of the workout low/moderate to avoid progression of the symptoms into something more serious – like a sinus infection, which can be brought on by breathing in the dry, cold air. If you try running and feel worse as a result, rest is probably the best thing.
If your symptoms are below the neck – chest congestion, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle soreness, fatigue, or swollen glands, you need to rest. These symptoms can be indicative of a more serious infection or virus (i.e. the flu) and should be taken seriously. The body needs the immune system to be working full force on clearing the illness. Running can delay the process or even make it worse.
Taking your temperature will also help with the decision. No running if you have a fever. Running elevates your body temperature, which can exacerbate a fever.
For those runners who monitor their heart rate, an elevation in your resting heart rate may be one of the first signs of an illness – perhaps even before other symptoms manifest.
For below the neck symptoms and fever, it is recommended to wait to run until the day after the symptoms or fever resolve. It is likely that you won’t feel like running anyways – listen to your body!
If you have the misfortune of getting sick at any point during your training, take the necessary time off to get healthy. The worst time to be sick would be in the days leading up to the race, so take care of yourself and avoid extending the illness by ‘running through’ it.
It is important to point out that deconditioning does not happen as quickly as most people think. Deconditioning is a gradual process that can take several weeks in fit individuals. Check out this report by Pete Pfitzinger for details on the deconditioning process. Therefore, taking a few days off to allow your body to get healthy will not ruin your training. Granted, the first couple runs back after time off may not feel great, but by the third run back you will be feeling much better and back on track before you know it.
Unfortunately, if you experience an extended illness, you may have to adjust your race goals. The well-respected marathoner/author/coach Pete Pfitzinger believes that if you miss > 1/10th of marathon training, you should adjust your time goals.
How quickly should you get “back on track”? If you have only missed a few days and your symptoms have resolved, try to pick up your next scheduled workout. Do not try to squeeze in all the missed workouts – you will be risking an injury. If you have missed 1-2 weeks with a more serious illness, you will need to ease back into your schedule by keeping the pace a little slower than normal and reducing weekly mileage. It is best to wait to resume speed workouts until your second week back (or when you are feeling 100%). If your energy level is still lower than normal, you should consider keeping your first long run back < 90 minutes – since a run longer than that can leave your immune system temporarily weakened.
Of course, everyone recovers at a different rate, so there is no hard and fast rule for resuming your training. it is important to listen to your body and not push it too hard too soon – you may be risking a relapse or a new injury. On the contrary, if your symptoms have fully resolved and your energy level is back to normal, you may be able to resume your scheduled workouts sooner. Be smart and be patient!