Running With A Cold: Is It Safe?

As cold and flu season approaches, you may wonder if having a cold will interfere with your training.

In a word, yes – feeling ill can keep you from going for your regular run. But not all colds are the same, so it’s important to know when being active with a cold might actually help and when it is asking too much of your body.

Scientific research has looked closely at the effect of exercise on disease, notably colds and respiratory infections. A few easy principles might help you determine whether to run or stay at home when you have a cold.

Running with a cold – is it safe? Let’s find out!

How to Identify a Cold?

Running with a cold - is it safe to run with a cold?

Do you have a cold or the flu, and what about COVID? All three are viral infections and have similar symptoms, so how can you tell the difference?.

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what kind of illness you have when trying to decide whether you should go for a run or stay in for a day or two. All three are highly contagious, so the first question to ask yourself is will you be in close contact with anyone during your run?

For example, do you usually stop by the store on the way home? How about your route? Do you run in a high-traffic area or go to a track or the gym? If you feel like you may be in contact with people, then it’s best to play it safe and stay home.

You can spread all three of these infections when you sneeze, cough, or even breath heavily via virus droplets.

Using the Neck Rule

If you decide you are not likely to come in contact with anyone else if you do go running, the next thing to consider is your symptoms. There is a general rule-of-thumb runners can use to decide if a workout will make them better or worse. It’s called the Neck Rule.

The Neck Rule refers to the location of your symptoms. It is not an exact science, but it gives you a way to gauge whether it is safe to go running. Simply put, if your symptoms are only from the neck up, you can run.

Neck up symptoms might include:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

These are all symptoms you might experience at the onset of a cold. There is some evidence that exercise like a run might open up your airways and help you fight the virus.

When you’re congested, blood rushes to your nasal cavity to battle the cold’s infection. When there is greater blood flow to this location, the blood vessels in your nasal cavity enlarge and take up more space, making your nose feel stuffy.

Running, however, drives blood to your legs and core muscles and away from the nasal cavity. That might help relieve some of the head congestion, so you go home feeling better than you did when you left.

If you do have symptoms only above the neck, consider reducing the intensity or duration of your run, though, by at least 50 percent. There are easy ways to do this, like:

  • Cutting your run time in half
  • Jogging slow instead of going for a run at your usual pace
  • Doing a brisk walk instead of a run

If you decide to go on your usual run, there are risks. Struggling to breathe properly may increase your risk of dehydration, for instance. You might also start to feel worse as the intensity of your symptoms increases.

If you go too far out, you may have trouble getting back, too. Plan ahead and determine a way to get home if you struggle, like taking the bus or making sure someone can come to get you if you call.

If you are somebody who runs without a phone, running with a cold is a good time to make an exception to that rule. You’ll need it if you run in to trouble.

See more: How to run with a phone [hacks for carrying it!].

Symptoms Below the Neck Mean You Shouldn’t Run

Should I Run With A Cold?

If you are experiencing any symptoms below the next through, it is better to take some time off. For example:

  • Tight chest
  • Chest congestion
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Achy muscles
  • Fatigue

Any of these symptoms means you should stay home and in bed.

It can get confusing if you have full-body symptoms like a fever. If you have a fever, your body is trying to fight the infection, and that is where you need to focus your energy, so it is a sign to stay home.

Consider Personal Safety When Running With A Cold

You also need to consider whether your symptoms might put you at risk if you run, even if they are above the neck.

For example, are you feeling dizzy? Pressure in the ears can interfere with your balance and mean you are more prone to an accident if you go out and run. Also, what about your vision? A head cold can be in your eyes, too, causing drainage that interferes with your vision.

Finally, a stuffy nose may make it hard for you to breathe. If you are not getting enough oxygen during your run, you can get tired or increase your risk of falling.

Allergy vs Cold Symptoms

When is a cold not really an infection? When the symptoms are due to seasonal allergies.

Having allergies will not usually interfere with your training, but how can you tell the difference? Here are some tips that can help you decide if you have a cold or allergies:

  • Allergies will make you more tired when you work out. If you have a cold, you will be tired whether or not you exercise.
  • If you have a fever, you probably have an infection and not allergies.
  • Allergies can have other symptoms, like a rash or itchy skin. You rarely have these with a cold
  • If you have body aches, you probably have a viral infection like the cold or flu.

Whether you run when your allergies are acting up depends on many factors. It might be necessary to run indoors during allergy season, but you should still be able to exercise unless you are having trouble breathing.

If you run outdoors, wearing accessories like a hat and sunglasses can protect your eyes and keep pollen out of your hair. Also, ask your doctor about an allergy medication that might get you through the season, too.

Look for medication that won’t make you drowsy, though.

When to Start Running Again After a Cold

At some point, the cold will go away, and you’ll want to get back to your routine. Most colds last seven days or less.

When you go out again, start gradually and give your body time to adjust and fully recover.

The most important thing you can do is listen to your body. This is true whether you have a cold, the flu, or even an injury. Your body will give you signals that you feel well enough to go for a run. If not, stay in bed and drink lots of fluids until your cold passes.

Author Profile

Esme Sanders

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Esme is a frequent contributor who manages to stay much more neutral on these pages than she ever manages after a glass of wine at club night. She is a 5K-10K specialist, albeit one with over twenty half-marathons under her belt. Esme divides her time between a busy career, two kids, yoga, pilates AND a busy race schedule.
Esme Sanders

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