Athletics Magazine

How Sick Is Too Sick?

By Brisdon @shutuprun

It’s that time of the year again. If you listen closely, you can hear it everywhere. Coughs, sneezes, the occasional gag. I was at the high school the other day and some kid left the health office with his mom and proceeded to throw up all over the front of the school.  Welcome back germs!

We are moving into it: the sick season.  Flu shot clinics and warnings about the whooping cough epidemic surround us (26,000 cases just this year). Don’t even get me started on the number of people walking around with strep throat and stomach viruses. I’m just hoping to escape the measles this year.


Illness and running don’t always mix. But, we runners are a stubborn bunch and sometimes it takes nearly aspirating forty gallons of phlegm before we’ll back down from a planned training run. I’ve always heard that the guide for running or not running while sick is the “neck rule”:

“Symptoms below the neck (chest cold, bronchial infection, body ache) require time off, while symptoms above the neck (runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing) don't pose a risk to runners continuing workouts.” {source}

Makes sense to me. Apparently, if you run with a fever, you can actually make yourself much sicker because you elevate your body temperature even more. I would also add the obvious – no running until the vomiting and diarrhea have completely left the building. No one wants to see that.

One tough thing about getting sick while training is knowing where to pick up after you’ve taken off from running due to illness. A reader (who is one month out from her first marathon and has been suffering from pneumonia for the past 10 days) brought up this question:

“I wanted to ask about people's experience with time lost due to illness (vs. injury) and getting back into training.  I unfortunately can't even cross-train at this point.  Should I expect that it will be hard as hell when I get back out there?  I think that by the time I get back to running, it will be taper time, and I may need to defer my scheduled marathon and find another to run the next month.”

Yes, it will be hard as hell.

I am not a doctor and have no clue what I am really talking about, but some of this seems to be common sense. That said, probably a good idea to ask Meredith Grey or someone like that.

My two cents:

I think deferring a marathon due to illness depends on the severity of the illness, how much the sickness will set you back and where you are in your training plan. If you are in the middle to end of marathon training and are going to miss more than two long runs, maybe you should postpone your race.  I think with more severe illnesses, you have to be careful to not set yourself back even more by doing too much too soon. Certainly pneumonia affects breathing and that’s not to be messed with.

Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of a race you want. Know that if you run and are still recovering, you will likely be slower and weaker than you’d like. It may be a better idea to wait until you can run the way you really want to. It’s cliché, but there is always another race.

Bottom line: ask your doctor. Hopefully he/she is a runner and “gets” how much running means to you.

Have you ever had to take major time off or miss a race due to illness?

Would you advise this reader to run her race or to postpone?


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