Readers Roundtable: Sore Throats, Sniffles, and Other Nonsense

The days are slowly getting longer here in Berlin — it’s even almost light out when we get up during the week! But in all other respects, it’s solidly still winter. Dark, damp, dank, and everywhere you go there’s at least ten people coughing and sniffling.

I already took a week off from running in January due to a dumb sinusy cold that came with some serious fatigue. I thought that might be it for the winter, but last Wednesday my husband came home with a scratchy throat and cough. Three days later, I had that telltale scratchy throat and wondered if I’m really sick enough to miss my weekly long run? Or is short but intense rest the way to go, and get back on my feet quicker?

To be honest, only like one percent of my brain wondered that, the one percent that never learns and is easily influenced by runners doing all sorts of silly things on social media. The other 99% of my brain has learned that even when I’m not really all that sick and could totally get out there and raise my heart rate for an hour or two — it’s generally not worth it in the end. Maybe I’m just a special snowflake or total hypochondriac (or both?) but I feel like running with any symptoms worse than a tiny sniffle ends up making the cold a) worse, and b) last longer. In the worst case, I end up in a sickness spiral that ends up in antibiotics and weeks of coughing.

The most annoying part of this is that every doctor I’ve ever talked to about this has been all, “WTF? Don’t run if you don’t feel well!” Which seems like really logical, solid advice and certainly comes from highly educated sources! Some have even pointed out that intense exercise with a viral infection like the common cold can lead to serious heart problems (yes, really.) But when you have big goals, you hate to take any time off from pursuing them. It doesn’t help that every running article on the internet is all, “Symptoms above the neck? You’re fine!” Which is totally unhelpful when the most common symptoms of a winter cold are in your neck: sore throat, swollen glands, tickly annoying cough.

For me, I’ve recognized my snowflake-ness and decided to skip my long run this week, hoping that a day or two of taking it really easy would let me get back to training sooner. I’ve also reframed the issue to tell myself that sometimes taking a little time off is the best way toward a big goal. This weekend, instead of going out for a long run, I loaded up on zinc and vitamin C, drank tea, and spent a lot of time on the sofa with my cat.

In (over)thinking about this whole topic, I became curious: What do other runners do? Sometimes it seems like everyone else is out there at 5 a.m even if they’re hacking up both lungs and running a 101-degree fever! Is this true? Tell us:

How has this winter cold season been for you? How do you deal with running and illness?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. I will often run with a sinus infection or non-painful cough. I will not run with a fever, or when the cough is painful. I made the mistake of running sometime in January with what I mistook to be just a head cold, got so hot as I ran that I had to stop–I was so determined to bang out that base run that I was shutting down my body signals and symptoms. I had a fever and refused to admit it to myself. Not worth it. Overall consistency is key, not the one-off instances where you need a break. I use a paid app for my training, and it does not account for “sick days.” I, and my obsessive tendencies, wrote to the developer to ask them to include an allowance for a bank of sick days in their calendar setup, just so I could feel validated for having to miss a day or two here and there when sick. For those of us who truly take our running seriously, there can be a dark side to it, the side that tends toward obsession, or perfectionism. And when we give in to that, we are no longer listening to our bodies, which is, of course, potentially more dangerous than that dreaded head-cold.