Running through sickness: How to know when to rest and when to race

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Winter is the time of runny noses, but should that stop you running? We find out...

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'To jog or not to jog?' That is the question, especially when illness gets the better of you and you feel like you ought to curl up and give in. It's never that simple though, is it? Whether you're the exercise junkie who only avoids a run on pain of losing a limb, or a committed sportswoman with an over-active guilty conscience, deciding whether you're too sick to exercise can sometimes seem like a huge dilemma.

The common and most sensible advice relates to what those in the medical profession call "the neck check". Before you go prodding yourself in the glands and doing yourself a real injury, understand that it's the neckline we're most concerned with here.

Simply put, if your illness is centred above the neckline (a runny nose, nasal blockage, sneezing or even a sore throat), then you should be fine to pull on your Lycras and hit the park.

The only exception to this rule, according to medical professionals, is a sinus infection. We're pretty sure you're not going to be in the mood to exercise with a sinus infection anyway, but in case you feel like taking the pain threshold to a new level, know that sinus infections occasionally lead to pneumonia, and that would really mess up your running schedule.

An illness that takes hold below the neckline (a chest infection or congestion, a chesty cough, stomach problems, a fever, general over-tiredness or aching muscles) should be taken as an indication to take it easy. While exercise increases cardiovascular activity and fires up the immune system (according to the American Journal of Medicine, a daily half hour walk can halve the number of colds you succumb to in a year), research has also shown that repeated exercise without allowing the body a chance to recharge can lead to respiratory infections – less fun than shopping for new running shoes!

Admittedly, a lot of this information seems fairly obvious, especially if you're reasonably in tune with what your body demands. However, there are a few instances in which your health and how you medicate illness can genuinely interfere with body's wellbeing. If you suffer from asthma and have a cold, be aware that your condition could be exacerbated – if you feel chest tension or have difficulty breathing before your run, reschedule for another time.

Similarly, if you are already taking medicine for a cold, it may be worth checking with a medical professional before you run, as some decongestants can increase your pulse, putting undue stress on your heart once you're in full flow.

For the majority of runners, the fact that an illness will naturally affect a performance is reason enough to let the body recuperate. It may sound like new-age gobbledegook, but listen carefully to what your body is telling you, and you should have the advice you need – unless you have an ear infection, in which case listening may not be an option at all.

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