You finally got into a good fitness routine and then bam – a head cold hits, you’re sidelined and now you feel all your good work is in vain right before the calorie-laden holiday season.
Not so fast.
If the cold is just a head cold, you probably can continue working out, says Theo Hodge Jr., an internist and specialist in infectious diseases with Capital Medical Associates in the District.
“Always listen to your body, but generally speaking, if you don’t have any underlying issues, it’s usually safe to exercise with a cold,” says Hodge, adding that a quick check with a doctor is always a good idea.
(Underlying issues such as asthma or cardiac conditions require special considerations, Hodge says. With asthma, there is already shortness of breath that will be exacerbated by congestion, and in cardiac patients, medications such as decongestants can elevate the heart rate to dangerous levels.)
But even with the above-the-neck head cold, otherwise healthy people will want to modify their exercise by lowering the intensity and duration, says Greg McMillan, online running coach and owner of McMillanRunning.com.
“There is this interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, exercise helps boost the immune system, but if you are trying to take your training to the next fitness level, that effort can actually suppress it.”
In other words, when a head cold hits is not the time to do high-intensity drills (not that you would want to) but rather to keep your exercise in the light-to-moderate range, says Alyssa Morrison, a local endurance sports coach.
“The athletes I work with – especially if they are training for an Ironman competition – don’t want to miss a single day of training,” Morrison says. “So what I might tell them to do is to go for a recovery run or a light spin instead of intervals or surges.”
Sometimes, Morrison says, the athlete will feel good during the light spin and start pushing harder.
“There is always that fine line,” she says. “Exercising and getting the blood flowing in your body can feel great. You might even feel less congested. But working too hard will make it worse.”
McMillan says in his experience, taking it easy on “the front end” of a cold can save you two or three weeks down the line.
“Give your body a break,” he suggests.
It’s unclear exactly how much fitness you lose, says Ross Miller, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland. But a long-distance runner is probably more affected than, say, a sprinter.
Aside from giving your own body a break by keeping it out of the gym, remember that you are also giving other people a break from your germs, Hodge points out.
“As long as you are sneezing and coughing, you are contagious,” he says, and those symptoms can easily go on for seven to 11 days – the typical duration of a cold.
“The kind thing to do would be to stay home.”
And then there are the big-kahuna colds, the ones that knock you out with extreme fatigue, body aches, chest congestion and/or fever. With those it’s better to stay home, in bed, allowing the immune system to focus on getting well, Miller says.
“Any time you exercise with a fever you risk delaying the recovery,” he says.
Or worse, you could get really, really sick.
“You’ve got a low-grade fever and you’re short of breath, but you feel pretty good so you keep running hard,” Hodge says. “Four, five days in and you are way short of breath and you’re coughing up green stuff. Next thing, you have pneumonia.”
And now you are looking at being sick and sidelined for several weeks.
If that happens, remember to take it easy as you get back into exercise, Hodge says. “If you’re out two weeks, I think you could expect to work back up for at least two weeks.”
For example, if you are a runner training for a marathon, you would not want to start with a long run as your first run.
McMillan says the time off can be good for the body and the mind – especially the mind of a runner focused on a particular race.
“They might do better than they expected because they kind of got out of their own way,” he says. “They adjusted their expectations and started enjoying it again.”
Keeping yourself and others fit and healthy
▪ Wash hands often, especially if you’re the one with a cold
▪ Use hand sanitizers when hand-washing isn’t available
▪ Wipe down equipment at the gym before and after use
▪ Stay away from the gym if you’re sneezing and coughing
▪ If you have an above-the-neck cold, work out at light-to-moderate intensity and duration
▪ If you have a below-the-neck cold, stay home and rest
▪ Hydrate more than usual, particularly if you have a fever
▪ Stay away from people with colds
▪ Eat more fruits and vegetables
▪ Consider taking zinc at early signs of a cold
▪ If you are unsure about whether you should exercise, ask a doctor