"Should I Run When I Have a Cold?"
This is a fabulous question! And I have a fabulous answer for you! Are you ready for it? Here it is: It depends.
Admittedly, that might not sound like a fabulous answer. But I’ll spend the rest of this post convincing you that it is, in fact, a fantastic answer and you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
On the surface, “should I run when I have a cold?” seems like a pretty straight forward yes or no kind of situation.
You are a unique, interesting, amazing individual who's part of this human race that’s made up of more unique, interesting, and amazing individuals. With all of our unique-interesting-amazingness, there is no ONE answer for everyone. One of my mentors told me early on that any good naturopath answers these type of questions with “it depends."
And she was right.
I’d be lying to you if I simply said “yes” or “no” to this question and walked away.
There are too many variables about you that I need to know first before I can answer your question, like: your health, your health history, your current immune state, your water intake, your regular exercise pattern, how easily you sweat, how often you have bowel movements, your energy levels, your constitution, your quality of sleep, your diet, your stress level, how this crazy election is affecting you….shall I go on?
This is why talking to naturopath outside of a medical visit (or inside one, ha) can be frustrating sometimes. It’s hard to get a straight answer from us. You think you’ve asked a simple question, and our heads start to spin with all the details about you we need to collect and coalesce in order to actually answer your seemingly straightforward inquiry.
Your question is the tip of the iceberg.
Beneath the water swims the complexity of human existence; what makes you you and not someone else. All the answers are there. We just have to discover how to tease them out. Eventually, we’ll arrive at a “yes” or a “no” for you, but the reasons behind those affirmatives or denials will be unique to your current state of being. And even with a “yes” or a “no”, there will be specific, individual instructions that go along with it, tailored to what’s the most beneficial for you.
Perhaps frustrating at first, but ultimately WAY more realistic and useful. Nothing is simple when we look at our bodies and minds in full because we recognize that everything is an interconnected whole. We can’t parse out certain symptoms that are annoying us, analyze them, and expect to get accurate results. But over time, as you get used to seeing your being as more than the sum of its parts, things start to become simple again. You learn to listen to yourself and what symptoms really mean (hint: they’re asking you to look more deeply at an issue, not to ignore or suppress it).
Obviously, we’re not in a medical visit right now, where I can find out in detail from you all of these personal variables. But I can give you some highlights. Some things to look for and listen to within yourself. That’s one of the ultimate goals of naturopathic medicine; to educate our patients enough about their own bodies and processes that they can care for themselves.You can take those first steps of listening to your body and start correcting the imbalance.
This self-knowledge leads to less fear and rash decisions around symptoms, and more understanding, compassion, and growth for one’s self. Really, we naturopaths kinda end up putting ourselves out of business if we’ve done our job well. I don’t mind. It’s one of the best rewards I get as a doctor when I see my patients become confident in managing and maintaining their own health.
So without further ado, let’s dive into how we answer our question!
There are two main factors we need to learn about.
1) What is your vitality like?
2) What is the strength of the illness?
What is vitality?
In naturopathic medicine we have a specific definition and it’s one of our core philosophical principles regarding how we look at health and disease. We call it the vis medicatrix naturae, or translated from latin, the healing power of nature. The vis, for short, is how we describe your life force. It’s a similar concept to qi in Chinese medicine.
Naturopathic doctors believe the body can heal itself. The simplest way to see this happen is watching a cut heal. We don't consciously will the body to clot our blood and form a protective scab. We don’t tell it to begin an inflammatory cascade so immune cells are recruited to the area to stave off infection and start stitching the skin back together. The body is always striving to heal itself.
Intuitively, I think we know this makes sense. How else would the body keep itself in tact and functioning through all the little spills, bruises, and mishaps? Not to mention mental, emotional, and spiritual issues and crises that pop up. This is a complete 180 from the western medical paradigm, where we’re taught the body doesn’t have any idea what it’s doing and we know best. We cut and poke and medicate symptoms away. We dampen and destroy the body’s ability to communicate with us through pain killers, cough suppressants, a myriad of other medications and surgery. All this just to block out warning signs.
Symptoms are harbingers of what’s to come if we don’t stop and listen.
And we really, really don’t like listening. Because the body’s message is usually in direct conflict with want you want to continue doing. But we need to start listening. And it begins with understanding your own vitality.
We all have the ability to heal ourselves, but the capacity we have to do so at any given moment is our vitality. How fast can we heal a broken ankle? A cough? A stomach bug? A depressed or anxious mood? Doubtless throughout your life you’ve noticed that sometimes healing takes place quickly or more slowly. Of course, the type and intensity of injury has an effect, but the reserves your body has on hand to deal with these insults plays a large part as well.
A vital system heals quickly.
How do you tell how vital you are?
You ask yourself these questions and answer honestly.
How have I been sleeping?
We all know sleep is crucial to health and wellbeing. It’s the fastest way to heal. So if we haven’t been getting enough of it, we’re definitely drawing on our reserves.
What’s enough? Eight to ten hours a night for adults.
What’s my energy level?
Have you been feeling tired and fatigued or well rested? We tend to push ourselves constantly, especially athletes, and we commonly want to ignore signs of fatigue. We dismiss it as a weakness we must overcome. Repeated long enough, this mentality can lead to a serious depletion of resources, decreasing your vitality and making it difficult for your body to fight off infection or recover quickly from strenuous activity. (MN note: Read more about overtraining here.)
What’s my water intake?
A good frame of reference for adults is to drink half your bodyweight in ounces per day. If you exercise and sweat, add eight to sixteen ounces for every hour of activity, depending on how intense it is. If you’re not peeing close to every hour, you’re not drinking enough water. Water cleanses our body. It flushes out inflammatory compounds and metabolic waste products.
And it acts as a delivery medium for nutrients. A lack of water results in a build of up waste products in the system. Your body has to devote more resources to cleaning them up, zapping your vitality.
How has my diet been?
This one is pretty self explanatory. Eat well, feel well. Eat crap, feel like crap.
How's my digestion been?
Digestion is a core process to our body. Without it working properly, even with the best diet, we’ll be undernourished.
Check in with gas, bloating, acid reflux, loose stools or constipation. All of these are signals that you’re not digesting properly.
What’s been going on emotionally?
Have you had major life changes happening? Has a major grief occurred recently that you’re still processing? Or a falling out with a friend or family member?
All of these issues, even though not physical, take a toll. They require energy to process and eventually grow and heal from.
Deep emotional patterns or restrictions should be considered in your journey into your own vitality. They are not something that can be pushed down and away or over and through. If ignored, they’ll continue to keep you in their grip, slowly depleting your flexibility and adaptiveness.
What has my stress been like?
How’s work? How’s school? How’s family life? What’s going on for you that causes you stress and how much of it is there? Is it manageable or are you drowning in it? Do you ever feel not stressed?
Many of us live with chronic stress daily. When it happens so often, it becomes the norm and sometimes hard to see. It’s still there, but we adapted as best we can because that’s what the body does. However, this adaptation takes precious resources and acts as a constant drain on your system.
Are there any major health issues I’ve had in the past?
Have there been major surgeries or traumas in your life? Chemical exposures? Long term medication use? Are there chronic or recurrent conditions that always pop up for you?
For instance, if you get a cold, does it always go to your sinuses first? Or make its way to your lungs quickly? These tendencies show us where the body might be struggling with a lower vitality. It often happens after years of suppressing symptoms with unnecessary antibiotics, cough medicine, fever reducers, and more.
Colds, flus, other pathogens will always prey on a weakened part of your system. The good news is if you listen to your body and allow it to heal itself naturally, your vitality increases. It’s able to throw off some of the accumulated crud and restore vitality to that organ system.
There are many more factors that play into vitality, but these questions represent a good core to check in with. Of course, we always have to take into account the type of sickness we’re dealing with and how it affects our vitality.
Strength of Illness
The same illness — virus, bacteria, fungus, food allergen — will affect multiple people differently. And sometimes totally differently. There is a constellation of symptoms that are usual with the common cold, like sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, congestion and cough.
Some pathogens are stronger than others and will evoke a more robust immune response in us across the board. Other illnesses, like the common cold, might be gentler than the influenza virus, but they can manifest in a very wide variety in people depending on vitality. Some people will get off with just a sniffle and some light congestion while others with the same virus will develop a full-on hacking cough and fever.
A special note and a decisive answer: if you have a fever, DO NOT go for a run. Your body is using tons of resources to mount a strong immune response and you don’t want to drain away any of its efforts. Sweating is great treatment for a fever, but taking a hot bath to get your core temperature up and sweating that way is less draining than a run that provokes inflammation and steals resources for muscle recovery.
So, take stock of what your symptoms are and how severe they are. The more severe, the harder you are fighting. Go, body, go! This gets difficult if you’ve used suppressants or conventional cold medicine like Nyquil, Delsum, Advil, Tylenol, Aspirin, etc., as they are meant to dampen symptoms. It makes it much hard to tell what’s happening in your body.
You’re now asking your body to fight TWO things. The pathogen AND the suppressant medication.
If you’re coughing, it’s because your body needs to get mucus out of the lungs in order to keep them clear. If you’ve got a fever, it’s because your body is mounting an immune response to help you get over the sickness. The faster that fever breaks, the faster you’ll feel better because your body has won the battle and is ahead of the bug at that point.
We want to support the immune system as much as possible, and sometimes physical activity is just the ticket!
Circulation is crucial to immune system function. The main way immune cells circulate is through the lymphatic system. It’s a passive system of vessels that are only pumped when muscles move.
So running and exercise are generally great for preventing colds, again, depending on vitality. But with an active cold, running isn’t always the right answer. After you’ve checked in on symptoms, the next question to ask yourself is where you are in the timeline of the cold.
There are three distinct stages:
Stage 1: Within the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours
You’re just barely getting the hint that you might be getting sick. Your throat might be a little scratchy, you might be little congested. The symptoms that arise in this time period can vary greatly for people, depending on their vitality and the strength of the pathogen. Sometimes within a few hours you’ve got a fever and are coughing. But many times the onset of a cold is a bit more gradual and mild.
Stage 2: After twenty-four to forty-eight hours but before discharge
After the first twenty-four hours, or maybe up to forty-eight hours, things are really starting to set in. You’re definitely sick. You’ve got congestion, and maybe you’re coughing because there’s mucus dripping down the back of your throat from your sinuses. Your glands might be swollen, and you’re really starting to feel fully on crappy. And, if you’re going to develop a fever, you do so in this stage.
This is the time when your immune system is building a response to wipe out the invading microbe, but it hasn’t quite gotten ahead of it yet. The length of this stage varies, as it depends on how quickly your body ramps up the immune system and how virulent the microorganism is.
Stage 3: Discharge
The demarcation between stage 2 and 3 is discharge.
There’s sneezing, lots of mucus streaming out of your sinuses (or plugging them up), and possibly coughing up stuff that has settled in your lungs. At this point if you had a fever, it’s broken.
Your body is saying, “Hey, I’m done producing this massive immune response, let’s clean up!” How do we clean up? We move things out! Discharge is not very comfortable, which is why we suppress it with medication, but it is a super necessary part of the cycle.
You have to allow your body to get rid of the yuck if you want it cleared out. Suppressing these symptoms only prolongs the process and weakens the body, potentially leading to more serious conditions like a sinus infection, bronchitis, and pneumonia. There are lots of lovely natural therapies to help you get through this stage without hindering what the body is trying to do, but it’s still gonna suck a bit.
Sometimes a little discharge happens a little in the earlier stages, but the majority hits you after you’re starting to improve. Most of the discharge is the leftovers of your immune response. Its like confetti at New Year’s. Lots of it is released at once, it has served its purpose, now it’s time to clean it up. And sweeping up confetti is kinda a giant pain in the butt.
The more discharge, the harder your body worked to win the battle. Be proud of that victory!
So, now that you know the 3 stages of a cold, what questions do you ask yourself before you head out for a run?
You check in with the vitality questions then ask these.
What stage am I in?
Knowing this will help you assess what kind of resources your body has to devote to physical activity. In some stages, it can be beneficial to get the circulation going, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Sometimes a walk is much more appropriate than a run.
I’ll generalize a little here. Do not go for a run in stage 2. Your body needs all the resources it can get to fight things off. A light walk to can be fine. This stage is crucial to you moving through your illness quickly and efficiently, so taking it easy, enjoying some homemade broth and soup, getting enough sleep and water, and resting is the perfect way to go.
Depending on the severity of the illness, it can be ok to go for a run in stage 1 or 3. Sometimes good, strong circulation in these stages helps to clear up symptoms more quickly.
In stage 1, an appropriately timed run can even stimulate the immune system enough that you don’t become full-on sick. But again, it all depends on the intensity of what’s going on in your body, and only you can make that call. It’s a delicate balance between supporting circulation to stimulate immune function and not draining resources your body needs to fight the bug.
Have I taken symptom-suppressing medication?
This greatly impacts your ability to fight off your cold and recover from it. I mentioned above that taking this stuff makes your body fight two battles: one against the cold and one against the medication. If you go out and overexert yourself, your body will be fighting three battles.
If you’ve taken symptom-suppressing medication, a light walk would be all the more strenuous you’d want to push things. Let your body recover before you push it more.
Do I really need to think about ALL OF THIS before deciding whether or not to run with a cold?
Absolutely. Internally, it just takes a few seconds to assess. Plus checking in with your gut instinct. What’s that adding to the picture?
Clear away all of the mental clutter of “I should” false obligations, training schedules, inspirational quotes about pushing through, and really listen to your body. What is it telling you? That it needs rest or that a light effort might be a good thing?
The stronger the symptom picture, the more likely the answer is yes to needing to rest. The lower the vitality, the more likely the answer is yes to needing to rest. The theme here is that you probably need some rest to recover quickly and fully. Take it easy on yourself for a few days and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your body can work with a full set of resources.
Remember, it’s always trying to heal, so doing everything you can to support it will lead to a much less painful process.
If you’re thinking of going for a run after checking in with yourself, how do you decide how far to go?
Take your average run length and cut it in half. Then cut it in half again. Really restrain yourself to do less. You want that punch up in circulation, but that’s it. Improving your circulation to increase your immune response is your ONLY goal for the run or activity you do. Not running a predetermined amount because your schedule says so.
If you start to feel fatigued, you’ve gone too far.
While you have an active cold, your goal with physical activity is to augment your immune response through improving circulation without draining your resources. This is a difficult balance, especially for athletes who are trained to push themselves beyond their limits all the time. Look out into the distance, see your limits, wave, and say, “hey, I’m good right here. I’ll see you later."This is not the time to push them. It’s a time to be gentle with yourself and your body. Respect its process and what it’s saying to you. Or perhaps yelling at you if you’ve got a nice strong immune response going!
If you listen to your body, you’ll recover much more quickly and be stronger on the other side than if you didn’t. The more you pay attention, the more you’ll hear. Listening in this deep and respectful way will improve your athletic pursuits on all fronts. The vis is inside all of us, gently guiding us along our path.
All we have to do is stop and listen.