Running While Sick: Rest or Push Through?


It is that season, that lingering in between winter and spring, where days are changing and the weather is in constant flux. It is also cold and flu season. When an illness hits, you can hardly get out of bed, let alone run. So, what do you do? Rest and sacrifice your training? Power through and risk delaying your recovery? As most things, taking each day as it comes, and really listening to your body is my best advice.

Winter is hard. It is wet. It is dark and cold. There are days in the Pacific Northwest where the you can’t tell where dawn ends and day begins. This gloom can make it hard to get out of bed for a run. Your motivation is at a minimum and you wonder why humans don’t hibernate. Yet, with the spring looming and the race season becoming us onward, we brave the season and power through. Winter running is where the work occurs so that the races of the spring and summer are a success. So, when an illness stops you in our tracks, it is hard to imagine stopping, but sometimes that’s all you can do.

This year I am focusing on the ORRC Half Marathon Series and the Mary’s Peak 50K. Thus, my mileage has to be relatively high. On a good week I log about 30 miles with a 15 mile weekend run in the mix. So, when a recent illness (three kids in daycare make this inevitable) caused my weekly mileage to max out at three, for two weeks, a strong sense of running anxiety was mix in with my aches and chills.

There were many days where living was about all I could accomplish, so running during that week was not even a thought. My body needed rest, and it made sure I took it, regardless of what I had planned. After about a week I started to feel better, but It took close to three weeks to feel back to my previous level of heath, and the effects to my running are lasting for months. After this latest experience, here are a few things to consider if you have a cold or illness that is affecting your ability to get your milage in:

What type of illness do you have?

Now, I am not a doctor, but if you have a mild cold, then you are probably alright to exercise. For me, my cold was in my chest, breathing was labored. In that case, I suggest taking time work back into exercise and plan to go slower and shorter than previously.

What is your body saying to you?

I feel like this goes without saying but is so important when recovering from and illness. One of my first runs back, I met friends at the track for a workout. Every time we were to increase our speed, my body would not go. So, I ran an easy four miles around the track and called it a day. I went into the run with an open mind, ready to listen, and adjust.

What are your expectations?

Thing are going to be a little different, maybe for a long time, depending on the severity of your illness. You may need to adjust your training plan, and then adjust it again when you are out on the road or trail. Adjusting your goals and expectations are a little more difficult but just as important. Being easy on yourself, both physically and emotionally will help you be back to your best faster.

Are you prepared?

With all of the uncertainty and pleads for flexibility, you should enter each run overly prepared. I suggest bringing fuel and water even on our shortest runs. Remaining hydrated is even more important when your body is recovering from being sick. I would also suggest running with your phone, ID, and some cash. You never know when you may have to grab a bite to eat at a convenient store or call an Uber.

Being ill in the middle of any training plan can be defeating. These moment are when runners have an extra guilt about all the needed rest. It isn’t easy, but sometimes your body forces you to slow down since most of us can’t on our own accord. So, listen to your body, rest when you need to, adjust your expectations, and dream of spring.

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