Running while ill

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original Blogs.


The holidays are here. We’re traveling and visiting people we don’t see on a regular basis. Students are spending more time inside and more letters are coming home to parents about various illnesses spreading through schools.

This is the time of the year where it’s hard to avoid catching some kind of virus. While the best thing to do is to avoid getting ill, that’s at times easier said than done. So what do you do as a runner if you do get ill?

When to run?

The first question we need to answer is whether we should be taking time off. When your body is weakened by illness, you sometimes need to remove the stress of running so it can have the strength to fight off the illness. However, there are times that the illness is minor enough that you don’t need complete rest.

So how do you know when to completely rest and when to keep running?

An old axiom experienced runners will talk about is, if the symptoms are all above the shoulders, keep running. If they are below the shoulders, rest.

Generally, that works pretty well. If the symptoms are below the shoulders, such as chest congestion or a stomach bug, the illness is often serious enough that you need to rest. If they are above the shoulder, such as nothing but nasal congestion or a sore throat, it’s often minor enough that you can continue running if you wish.

However, this isn’t perfect. Sometimes, the symptoms of a head cold are so significant that your body needs rest. This is where there is no simple formula. You have to use your judgement. If you’re feeling run down, think of the long term risk of trying to run through it. If you’re going to prolong the illness, a week or less of time off is most likely better than a month or more of compromised training.

How to adjust?

So you’ve decided you’re healthy enough to run. Now what? Do you just continue with the plan as though nothing is happening? Most likely, no.

If you’re experiencing truly minor issues, then you might be able to continue. However, most illnesses are significant enough to warrant at least some change in our training plans. I’ll list adjustments here in order based on severity. The first adjustments, when the illness is least severe, first. As things get more severe, the adjustments become more significant.

I won’t go into detail on what symptoms warrant what adjustments because, again, you need to use your judgement. The one thing I will state is play it safe. It’s better to back off a bit too much for a short period of time than not enough and deal with the illness for a long period of time.

Minor symptoms, small adjustments: If you don’t really feel any different other than a scratchy throat or some nasal congestion, you can probably continue near full load. You might want to cut your longest runs short a bit and take the edge off your hardest workouts by backing off the pace a bit or reducing the number of planned reps but not much is needed.

However, as you start getting a little more advanced, it’s time to start changing things. If not 100% healthy, I don’t like the idea of a 2+ hour long run. Cut it back. The long run can be very strenuous on your immune system, which is just what you don’t want.

Likewise, very hard workouts such as 5K pace repeats or tempo runs of grueling distance are very strenuous on your body. I prefer skipping any kind of repeat or interval workout completely. In its place, a tempo run of moderate effort can be done. Likewise with more grueling tempo runs. Make them a little more moderate.

Easy days can continue as normal, though it’s not a sin to shorten them at least slightly.

Moderate symptoms, moderate adjustments: When you feel low on energy or the symptoms are enough to have you feeling a bit beat up, more significant changes are needed but you can probably keep running.

Long runs of any kind are out. Personally, I won’t run for more than an hour if I’m feeling low on energy or the symptoms are more than minor nuisances.

Same for workouts. Just don’t do them. Even tempo runs. Even strides.

So what’s left? Relatively short runs of less than 1 hour. I even prefer the 30 minute range. Pace should be slow. You’re trying to warm up your body and get the blood flowing. Don’t think of training, think of just getting your body moving.

Severe symptoms, time off: As mentioned above, if the symptoms are severe, give your body the rest it needs.

In the end, it’s obviously best to avoid getting ill in the first place. However, nobody can always do that. When you do get ill, the best guidelines are common sense and your best judgement. Be smart and do what it will take to get back to 100% as soon as possible.

Photo credit: health ideas, on Flickr

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