You’ve been building up your mileage and doing your speed workouts. You’re feeling faster and fitter and excited about your training. Then, out of the blue, you wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus. All the Kleenex in the world couldn’t possibly deal with the motherlode that you’ve got crammed into your nasal passage.
Curse Mr. Sneezy from your office and your kid’s nose-picking little friends! You’re sick!
Grappling with feeling pretty lousy and simultaneously feeling compelled to continue your successful training, you don’t know whether to curl up in a little ball on the couch or suck it up and head out on your regularly scheduled run. What to do? Is it better to “sweat it out” or just lounge about?
Understanding the Immune System
Your immune system is responsible for fighting off diseases and keeping you healthy. It’s made up of a bunch of different structures and processes, including special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs, which work to defend you from foreign invaders like germs and dangerous microorganisms.
How well your immune system functions is greatly influenced by stress. Short bursts of stress (lasting from just a few minutes to a couple hours) can actually help boost overall immune health, but chronic stress (lasting days or even years) can have pretty detrimental effects. By “stress,” we’re not just talking about those busy days when you want to pull out your hair and scream at your boss (although that certainly counts too), but anything that places an extra burden on the body, such as:
- Physical stress, like exercise or physical labor
- Psychological stress, such as those from finances, school, career, or relationships
- Lifestyle stress, like drugs, poor nutrition, and bad hygiene
- Environmental stress, such as extreme heat or cold, pollution, or high altitude
Exercise and Its Effect on the Immune System
Exercise is a type of physical stress, and that stress influences immune function. When you’re healthy, your body can easily adapt to the stress that exercise places on the body. In fact, this adaptation is what makes us stronger and healthier.
When you’re sick, however, your immune system is already stressed. The added stress from a hard workout — like a long run or a tempo workout — can be more than the immune system can handle. One single high intensity workout or long run can depress immune function. In essence, this means you’re not letting the immune system do its job; you’re piling more and more work in front of an already taxed-out process, which just makes you sicker.
Listen to Your Body
So does this mean you’re doomed to lay on the couch like a slug every time a case of the sniffles comes on?
Think of exercise as a spectrum, ranging from non-strenuous movement to tough, purpose-driven workouts. On one end, you are moving your body without much physical exertion — in other words, you’re not placing a great load of stress on your body. At the other end of the spectrum are strenuous workouts — their whole purpose is to stress the body in order to make gains.
If you’re feeling under the weather, but don’t show signs of fever or body aches, easy movements are probably fine, and may even be helpful. Remember, this means limiting yourself only to activities that aren’t intense enough to create immune-compromising stress. This will vary from person to person depending on fitness level, but non-strenuous movement could include:
- Stretching or foam rolling
- Easy yoga
- For those with high levels of restraint and fitness, a very easy jog may be tolerated
If you’re feeling downright crummy, or have a fever, elevated heart rate, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint pain, or a deep cough, then for goodness sake take some time off and just rest. It takes about 10 days before you’ll lose significant running fitness, so as long as you don’t make a habit of it, there’s no need to panic if you need to take a few days off.
- Assess your symptoms. If you have a fever, elevated heart rate, extreme fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint pain, or a deep cough, opt for rest.
- If your symptoms are minor, opt for non-strenuous movements.
- If you’re feeling lousy and don’t feel like doing anything, then don’t.
- Be patient and err on the side of caution.
- If you do run while you’re under the weather, it should be about maintaining fitness, not advancing it. Keep things easy, skip the intervals, and put an extra emphasis on getting plenty of sleep and high-quality nutrition.
- If you head out for a run and feel like garbage, abort the mission and go home. You’re not doing yourself any favors by pushing through and running your immune system into the ground.
- Stay out of the gym. No one wants your cooties.
Returning to Training
Once you finally start feeling healthy and human again, you’ll probably be itching to get out for a good run. It may be tempting to try to “make up for lost time” and stack in several solid workouts.
DON’T DO IT!
As frustrating as it may be, you need to respect the health of your immune system. It’s best to wait a full 24 hours after you start feeling normal again before you resume training. Once you do begin running again, ease your way back into it, as your immune system probably still isn’t quite back up to speed yet, and the last thing you want is to relapse into illness again. Spend your first few days back doing easy, short mileage runs. After two or three days of easy running, you can try a more structured workout or longer run. Continue to listen to your body, and back off if you feel the return of any symptoms.
Tracie is a former teacher and a lifelong learner who loves exploring. Most at home in the mountains, she enjoys tearing up and down the trails on her mountain bike, and occasionally leaves the wheels at home for a run through the trees. Having recently earned her personal trainer certification, Tracie thrives on helping others reach their athletic goals.