Running with a cold: the next best thing to evidence based medicine

Only a couple of weeks ago I face a battle with myself, not for the first time. Should I carry on running with a cold or carry on regardless and see what happens. So I thought I might have a look at people who know a little more than me and decided to spread the word here.

Ask nearly anyone on the street and they will be only too happy to tell you that running with a cold is a bad idea, and will make you ill for longer. However like so many commonly held beliefs, this does not necessarily have any foundation in fact, just like drinking lots of water to get well quicker.

A brief look at the available evidence doesn't really find any big studies with particular relevance to exercise, upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), and trained atheletes. So that leaves us to pick through the bones of smaller and slightly less relevant publications.

One study from ball state university found in a study with 23 people that moderate exercise (70% max heart rate) in sedentary individual had no impact on the duration of symptoms from URTI.  This was staistically significant, but this is a pretty small sample and as such does have some inherent lack of reliability.

Of slightly more interest is an article published in 1998 in the journal of medicine and science in sport and exercise. This took 34 young people of moderate fitness and was kind enough to deliberately innoculate them with rhinovirus (one cause of the common cold). They then made half of them exercise at 70% of maximum heart rate for 40 minutes every other day and saw how things went.  They found that exercise had no impact on symptom severity or duration at all.

In fact I wasn't able to find any studies which said that exercise did have a negative impact on recovery from the common cold.  However things aren't quite that simple, the are small studies by medical standards and not powerful enough to say there is no risk of rare but severe complication (such as pneumonia and secondary bacterial tonsilitis). They also don't cover any intense exercise or racing situation where the stresses on the body are higher.

So to summarise we really don't know for certain if it is wise to exercise with a cold, the suggestion is that for most people it should be ok, but that decision is taken at your own risk.  In my usual stubborn fashion I ran on anyway and even managed a poor quality interval session and was better with the usual 4 days and in the process I discovered that running really cleared up my nasal congestion..

Necessary Disclaimer: This article is based on my personal opinion and should not be taken as medical advice, if you have any concerns please contact you own responsible medical practitioner.

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