Should you train when you have a cold?

  • Blog
  • 16th October 2018

On average, an adult can expect to have 2 or 3 upper respiratory infections per year. When they come up, it is common for athletes to ask the question “Should I train when I have a cold?” If you train, you are an athlete, so this question is important for you. Is it a good idea or a bad idea to exercise with a cold?

Well, the short answer is “It depends”. One important factor is whether the exercise you do with a cold is mild, moderate or strenuous, as these can have different levels of impact on your cold or flu. Generally, many people might actually assume that exercise is always a good thing, no matter what. But a person’s definition of ‘exercise’ can vary greatly, and your body does need a little extra energy to fight off your cold.

Mild vs strenuous exercise when you have a cold

There are several factors that dictate whether or not you should train when you have a cold. The most important of them is the degree of exercise you intend to undertake. Let’s break the options down:

Intensive

The majority of experts and researchers advise that high-intensity training when you have a cold should be avoided. You can return to this type of training a few days after the cold symptoms have passed. This is because being sick is already taxing on your immune system, and heavy exercise can actually diminish one’s immunity. When fighting off a cold or flu, you don’t want to do something that could actually reduce your capability to fight illnesses.

Mild and moderate

The question of engaging in lower degrees of exercise needs to be broken down as well. Ultimately, it depends on the extent of your symptoms:

    • Though there is only limited research, most experts recommend that if there is no fever and symptoms are confined to ‘above the neck’, exercise should be fine.
    • However, if you have more severe symptoms like a fever, extreme fatigue, aching muscles and/or swollen glands, you should take a couple of weeks off before returning to training.

 

Can intense exercise make you more vulnerable to cold or flu?

Exhaustive exercise does indeed increase your risk of contracting a cold or flu virus. One of our immune system’s most powerful weapons are T-cells, some of which are the first line of defence against infections. There is research that suggests heavy exercise reduces the number of T-cells in the blood, making us more vulnerable to foreign invaders. This means cold or flu viruses are more likely to set in when we train hard.

With all this in mind, the best approach is prevention when thinking about cold or flu viruses and exercise. They can really throw a spanner in the works of our training, and are generally irritating all-round. If you do contract a virus, avoid intensive exercise until your symptoms improve, and avoid exercise altogether if your symptoms are more severe. Here are a few steps you can take to minimise your risk of getting sick:

      • Don’t over-train: Space out your vigorous workouts to avoid overdoing it, and ensure you give yourself adequate recovery time.
      • Eat a balanced diet: The immune system’s healthy finction is dependent on a range of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Supplementation beyond the RDA of these nutrients hasn’t been demonstrated to be beneficial, but eating a rich and diverse variety of foods should give you most of what you need.
      • Avoid rapid weight loss: Low-calorie diets or extensive fasting have been shown to impair the function of the immune system. Weight loss alongside intensive training will make you more vulnerable to sickness.
      • Sleep well: Sleep deprivation has been linked to a weakened immune system. If you aren’t sleeping well, take a look at your sleep health and consider seeing your doctor about it.

The question of “Should you train when you have a cold?” is subjective, and it’s important to understand the variables. If you are sick, then overdoing it with the training can make you worse or, at the very least, slow down your recovery. For a mild cold, mild to moderate exercise is probably okay. If you have more severe symptoms, you should stay away from exercise altogether until the symptoms are gone. For definitive advice for your specific situation, the best advice is to see your doctor. Check out this short video for some extra advice on the subject.