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February 21, 2014

On The Run: The pros and (mostly) cons of running while sick

This winter hasn’t been easy for local runners. Not only has the weather been fairly uncooperative for training, it’s also been a particularly nasty cold and flu season.

Which presents a different kind of challenge: How far should you push yourself when you’re sick?

Of course, your doctor and your mom will likely tell you to stop running entirely until you’re better, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Serious runners don’t just drop everything because of a cold or cough, even when they should. I should know, I’m one of the worst offenders.

Normally, a head cold won’t slow me down. If anything, I feel better when I’m congested and I go for a run. But it’s when your symptoms are more serious that you need to exercise caution.

Last fall, I caught a nasty chest cold and cough right before Reach the Beach, a 24-hour, 200-mile relay through New Hampshire. Rather than bow out at the last minute and force my team to find another runner, I decided to tough it out.

I was still able to run; it was when I wasn’t running that I was suffering. The running part went fairly well. I felt strong and didn’t have any problems. But once I was done and back in the van, I was hacking away like there was no tomorrow. Loud, horrible, non-stop coughing that had my teammates considering just dropping me off at a local emergency room.

Fortunately, I was able to get through the event in one piece and eventually the cold went away. Nevertheless, I probably shouldn’t have run in the first place.

I and other runners have had similar dilemmas before big races like marathons, where you train for months only to catch a cold right before Race Day. Are you going to quit because of a cold? Of course not. But you may have to adjust your expectations if you can’t perform to the peak of your abilities.

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