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Running With A Cold: Should You Run If You Feel Ill?

Unless you have an immune system of steel, you're likely no stranger to the common cold. While it's generally considered a mild illness, the symptoms can make running much less appealing. Some people prefer to take a break from their running plans but if you're training for an event, this may not seem doable.

If you're struggling with a cold and not sure what to do, you're in the right place. Zach Kingsbury, Personal Trainer and Assistant Gym Manager at PureGym Cambridge Grafton Centre, explains whether it's better to keep running with a cold or whether you should simply rest up until you feel well again.

Should You Run With A Cold?

Whether you should run with a cold or not is a dilemma. You don't want to miss a week worth of runs, but you don't want to make your cold worse.

The simplest way to decide whether you should run, or whether you should rest, is by carrying out a mini diagnostic test on yourself to see if you are well enough to run, or if symptoms are 'below the neck'.

'Below Neck' is a runners' rule that determines whether a run will make symptoms worse or not. If symptoms are below the neckline, you should swap running for rest. Key examples of these symptoms include:

  • Body aches

  • Chest congestion

  • Chills

  • Coughs

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Bronchial infection

  • Swollen glands

Running with these ‘Below Neck’ issues can strain your respiratory system and make your symptoms worse, so it’s better to rest when you’re suffering with any of these symptoms.

If you’re only suffering with some of the classic symptoms that occur above the neck, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, or sneezing, then you should be able to go for a run without causing any stress on the body. However, it’s still advisable to take it easier than usual – I’ve shared tips on how to do this below!

Can Running Help Ease Cold Symptoms Or Help You Get Better?

Running can help to relieve some cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion and fatigue, thanks to the increased blood circulation and release of endorphins. Running can also help to temporarily boost the immune system, helping to clear your cold faster.

However, there's a fine line between what can improve your symptoms and what can make symptoms worse. Moderate exercise is helpful, but too much volume or too high intensity can worsen symptoms and lower the immune system. It's best to keep runs shorter and at a low intensity when you're feeling run down.

What Are The Risks Of Running With A Cold?

If your symptoms are above the neck and you're only engaging in moderate runs, there are minimal risks to running with a cold.

If you choose to run with symptoms below the neck, you may worsen symptoms and put more strain your respiratory system, which can mean taking longer to recover.

Running at an above moderate level can also slow recovery as your body has to recover which pulls resource away from fighting off the infection.

If you're feeling run down or ill and are not sure whether to head out on a run, staying home with plenty of fluids and getting some rest can be a safer option!

Tips For Running With A Cold

So you've gone through your symptoms and decided that you feel well enough to venture out on a run. Now what?

It's best to exercise caution when running with a cold, and these tips will help to prevent you from overdoing it.

  • Keep your distances short: no more than 4-5 miles. Even if you're training for a marathon or a half marathon, you're only going to make things worse by running for an extended period of time. Your respiratory system won't be able to cope and, let's be honest, you're going to feel incredibly uncomfortable.

  • Keep your running pace steady: Take your average time per kilometre/mile and drop 20-30 seconds off it. You may feel like you're running like a snail, but it's better than making yourself feel more ill. Drop the pace and enjoy the fresh air.

  • Listen to your body. Basically, if after a mile or so you feel like you aren't getting anything out of the run, simply stop! It's not worth making yourself worse for the sake of a couple of miles. If you experience nausea, dizziness or even abnormal sweating, stop your run and focus on recovery.

Can You Run A Marathon or Event With A Cold?

While running a 5k or 10k event with a cold is unlikely to be enjoyable, it's unlikely to be harmful as long as you aren't experiencing any below the neck symptoms. If you do have below the neck symptoms, it may be sensible to miss out - as sad as that is - for the sake of your health. There will be other 10k races!

When it comes to running a half or full marathon, this really depends on the severity of your symptoms. If you're at the start or end of a cold and only dealing with light sniffles, you may be okay... But if you're suffering badly with symptoms, it's going to be very uncomfortable. Listening to your body is vital in these circumstances. You're at a higher risk of more serious health issues if you choose to run a marathon with a bad cold. 

If you have a cold a few days before an event, focusing on recovery (high fluid intake, rest and very low-intensity movements) is your best bet if you want to be fit in time for the race.

Example Workouts For Running With A Cold

If you're feeling fit enough to head on a run, the below workouts are some moderate options you can try.

  1. 5K Interval Training Running Workout

    Distance: 5 kilometres 

    Pace: 20-30secs below normal pace per KM (running)

    After a warmup, alternate between running and walking every kilometre, so running 1km, 3km, and 5km, and walking 2km and 4km. Cool down by walking for 5-10 minutes and finish off with some stretching.

    When walking, make sure to hydrate and keep your breathing as deep as possible to lower your heart rate and get ready for the next running stint. Keep your pace slow. This should be comfortable enough for your current condition.

  2. 5 Miles Interval Running Workout

    Distance: 5 miles

    Pace: 20-30secs below normal pace per mile (running)

    This workout is basically the same as the previous run, but you're going a bit further and working in miles. Start with a warm up, then alternate running (1m, 3m, 5m) and walking (2m, 4m). Finish with a cooldown and some stretches.

    It's important to note you will take longer to cover a mile than a kilometre, so use your best judgment and if needed, revert to alternating every kilometre instead. Again, drop your running pace and focus on hydration, breathing and heart rate recovery during your walking stint. I recommend only trying this workout when you're on the final stages of a cold since it's a little longer than the first.

If you're prone to getting colds, it could be worth looking at ways to boost your immune system to keep yourself as fit and well as possible. Make sure you're getting plenty of sleep and that your diet includes plenty of nutritious whole foods - you can check out our recipes section for healthy meal ideas. 

If you need help training for a run, sign up to a PureGym near you and consider booking in with a Personal Trainer - they'll be able to support you on your fitness journey. You can also check out our Training For Events hub here.

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