Please settle this question once and for all: should I or should I not work out when I have a cold? Does it matter if the cold is on its way in (minor sore throat, slightly runny nose), fully arrived (lots of congestion) or on its way out (lingering cough)? Should I do a less intense form of exercise for each of these stages or skip working out altogether? Is there any form of exercise I can do right through a cold? I don't want to do anything to prolong my colds (by overtaxing my immune system) and usually don't feel like exercising when I'm under the weather anyway. On the other hand, I hate to set back my workout progress...

ask the trainer, jim beatty

What a great and timely question with winter approaching. There are several questions here, so let's address them one by one.


Training when sick, or even with a cold, is usually not the best idea. When a "bug" has entered your body, your immune system is working hard to fight that invader, increasing the overall work and stress on your body and all of its systems. Adding exercise to the mix just piles on more stress, which means less energy and resources to dedicate to fighting and recovering from the illness.


Not only does training take recovery energy away, but rigorous exercise will temporarily weaken the immune system. Hard training doesn't knock immunity down for very long, but it could just be long enough to allow a small cold to explode into a full blown illness.


As far as exercising when a cold is in different phases, it definitely makes a difference. When you feel something coming on you should SLOW DOWN… Get to bed earlier, drink more fluids, eat really well, and don't exercise. Give your body the resources to recover. Chances are you'll be back to normal in a couple days.


When you're really under the weather, you don't feel like exercising because you shouldn't. This is your body telling you to slow down and let it work on recovering. Any more stress will just knock the system down further.


When you feel that the illness is on its way out, usually some light aerobic exercise is best. Working at 55-75% of your max is just enough to get breathing and circulation going, but not enough to really tax your system. If the cold is in your head, this will typically help. If it's still in your throat or chest it's probably best to wait it out and not exercise much at all. About the only thing I'd say you can do all through any illness is take a long hot shower and stretch.


As far as setting back your progress, I wouldn't worry about that. A few days off from exercise will not set you back at all. You may feel a little weaker when you come back, but that's only temporary. Taking time off to recover from illness is the best way to ensure that you'll be back at your training soon, and that training will be good. I've known too many people that have trained through illness and have had a sinus infection for the entire winter. On the other hand I've seen people take off several weeks and come back stronger.


The bottom line is that illness is often times a way of showing us that we're “running too hard”, or spreading ourselves too thin, or not recovering fully. The stress in our lives today is a lot, and if we don't listen to what our bodies are saying, and slowing down a little when it says to, eventually it'll “shout loud enough”, and we'll be forced to slow down. Hopefully it only means spending a few days in bed, relaxing, watching re-runs, drinking more fluids, and enjoying some chicken soup.


We're all different, and illness can be different for everyone. If you have questions or need more information I would seek the advice of your doctor.