'Tis the season...

By: Brooke Dinsmore

... to get sick!

That's right, friends.  Cold and flu season are upon us in full-force.  There are record-breaking numbers of confirmed flu cases this season, some of them pretty severe.  

With spring race season quickly approaching (RunTheBluegrass is Saturday, March 29 and the Derby Festival Marathon/MiniMarathon goes down April 19!), coming down with a cold or the flu can throw a real wrench in your training plans.  If you play your cards right, going down doesn't necessarily mean going out -- but to steal a phrase from 'ol G.W. Bush, you're going to need some "strategery" to get you back on pace to finish or PR or whatever your goal is!

Injuries directly resulting from running are pretty well-documented, so the duration of layoff and course of treatment are more certain; this eases anxiety for most runners because it minimizes the uncertainty of recovery time.  But the cold and flu take more of a "wait-and-see" approach, requiring athletes to rely on subtle body cues and be aware of several other factors.  Many factors that determine running performance are affected by illness -- particularly hydration, blood sugar levels and cardiopulmonary status.

Most doctors, running coaches and trainers will tell you that it's okay to train through symptoms "from the neck up" -- stuffy/runny noses, sinus congestion, fullness in the ears.  If the lungs are involved, however, most recommendations are to wait out the symptoms plus 24-hours of "feeling well."  If you're running a fever, any type of exercise is a NO-GO.  That's evidence that your body is fighting something off, you need to conserve its resources to do just that.  Once the fever subsides, the "24 hour rule" still applies.  If you have any gastrointestinal symptoms from your illness -- we're talking vomiting or diarrhea -- your risk of dehydration increases DRAMATICALLY.

Given the fact that this year's flu strain has spread widely and quickly -- and caused numerous flu-related deaths -- your best bet is to visit your medical professional and determine if medications are necessary.  If you have the flu, you're probably going to wind up with a prescription for Tamiflu, which is a good thing.  If it's a cold or upper respiratory infection, you may end up with antibiotics.  For the most part, antibiotics and bronchodilators (read: inhalers) have negligible effects on running or other athletic performance.  But athletes, beware: A certain class of antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones, have been known to cause weakness and/or rupture of connective tissues (tendons, specifically).  The most commonly prescribed drugs in this category are cipro, levaquin and avelox.  BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE.  Read your prescription. If your physician prescribes you one of these, kindly request an alternative-- and be prepared to explain why.  
The truth is, even after you feel better you may feel the effects of the flu for several weeks.  This can include everything from stiffness and soreness due to inactivity, decreased respiratory ability, tiredness and fatigue.  It can take several weeks to return to full strength, so ease back into running or any other kind of exercise.  Adjust your training and race plans accordingly.  You don't want the taste of a bad run in your mouth, so to speak, especially after being sick.   Don't compare your immediate-post-illness performance to your pre-illness performance.  That's not fair, you cannot expect to just bounce back from something that ravages your body like that.   

Articles on RunnersWorld.com suggest the following plan for returning to running after illness:

Warm-up with a 5-minute walk.  Run for 20-25 minutes at an easy, conversation pace.  Cool down with a 3-5 minute walk.  Repeat this every other day, filling in your "off days" with cross-training of your choice.  If, after three runs, all is well, increase your run time to 25-30 minutes for another three runs.  Still feeling good?  Increase your running time gradually (5-10 minutes at a time) until you get back to a normal pace/distance.  The best advice I could give? Modify your runs based on the kind of day you're having.  If you feel great, you may be able to run longer... not so much? Cut back your run time.  But the truth remains: If you go too hard, too soon, you may wind up sick again... or worse.

When recovering from an illness, hydration is KEY.  Make sure you're hydrating with more than just water-- give your body the electrolytes and minerals it needs.  There are all sorts of beverages and mixes on the market that can provide these essentials.  Personally, I'm not much of a fan of "sports drinks" due to the unnecessary sugar content.  My personal favorite beverage for rehydration is a mix called SW.O.R.D. (Sweat Oral Rehydration Drink).  It was formulated and developed by the Sport Geeks, a couple of physicians and physiologists right here in Lexington!  It has sodium, potassium and carbohydrates for hydration and recovery with a citrusy flavor.  It does have some sugar in it, according to the label, but I've never had that "heart-rate-increasing-sugar-rush" like I have with some of the other well-known sports drinks on the market.

Disclaimer: SWORD does not pay me or otherwise compensate me to endorse their products.  I talk about it of my own free will because I use it and have found it to be the best product for me.  I'm also a fan of the fact that I've met the gentlemen who developed the product, work out with them and know that they use it too.  The fact that I can pronounce everything on the ingredient list is a definite perk for me as well.

And, given that we've been living in something of a polar vortex the last few weeks, make sure you consider your wardrobe.  In these below-freezing and near-sub-zero temperatures, make sure you cover as much skin as you can.  I particularly like to make sure my mouth, nose and ears are covered for sure.  Limit your exposure in extremely cold temperatures.  No one likes a dreadmill, we all know it and we'll readily admit it... but it can be a better alternative than falling on ice or snow or coming down with the flu for a second time.  Some health clubs and churches offer indoor walking/running tracks, you're bound to know someone who can refer you to one.

Take your time, let your body heal itself.  Feed it the right nutrition and supplements, ease back into your activity. Give yourself some "ego" room -- don't feel like you have to go out and bust a sub-25 minute 5K your first day back from illness.  Relentless forward progress doesn't have to mean giant leaps and bounds... baby steps can count, too.

Keep moving forward, friends!


  I'm Brooke Dinsmore, a 29-year-old runner, 5-time marathoner, mostly-Paleo CrossFit disciple. Feel free to follow my adventures in running, CrossFit, nutrition and life over at Confessions of a CrossFitter. I tweet as @brookiewookiee, which is how most people in the running community know me. I run anywhere I can (except on a treadmill, yuck!) and train at CrossFit Maximus here in Lexington, KY.  

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