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Should you train when you have a cold?

According to the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, the average adult suffers 2-4 colds a year. Gentle exercise (around 30 minutes of moderate activity a day) lowers the risk for these respiratory infections, but more intense exercise can weaken the immune system and allow viruses to gain a foothold and spread. So what are the 5 golden rules when it comes to working out with a bout of the sniffles?

Rule 1: Wrap up when temperatures drop

Wearing extra layers when it’s cold outside is vital. It’s no old wives’ tale that exercising outdoors in cold weather might make you even more susceptible. Research at the Cardiff laboratories has shown that chilling really does exacerbate onset of common cold symptoms. When 90 students were asked to have their feet chilled in cold water, then wait for 20 minutes, results showed that the chilled group had twice as many colds over the next 5 days as a control group of 90 students who were not exposed to the same discomfort. 

Rule 2: Listen to your body

If you have a mild cold, using the ‘below the neck’ rule: with symptoms above the neck you can carry on exercising, but if symptoms are below the neck, you should take time out. But don’t be restricted by it. Mike Gleeson emeritus professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, advises avoiding heavy exercise on day 1 of a cold, when your sniffles are at their worst, and whenever you have upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) symptoms like a sore throat, coughing, runny or congested nose. And you should never exercise when a cold or URTI leaves you with a bad headache, fever, diarrhea, severe coughing or vomiting. If symptoms haven’t eased after 3-4 days, see your doctor.

Rule 3: Consume carbs

There’s little doubt that a good diet can both lower your risk of caching a cold and reduce its severity. Last year, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology was the latest to stress the importance of carbohydrate ingestion during training to boost immunity against viruses. “Ingesting carbohydrates during vigorous exercise may help, because carbohydrates maintain blood sugar levels,” said Oliver Neubauer, a senior research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia and one of the study authors. “Having stable blood sugar levels reduces the body’s stress response, which in turn, moderates any undesirable mobilization of immune cells.”

Rule 4: Try taking extra vitamin C

Of all remedies for the common cold, vitamin C remains the most popular and yet there is surprisingly little evidence to support its use, at least for the general population. However, Finnish researchers found it might be helpful for active people. In a series of studies involving more than 11,000 people, scientists at the University of Helsinki gave groups of volunteers a dose of vitamin C and then assessed its impact on their health. Participants included school children, marathon runners, teenage competitive swimmers and soldiers, with results showing that the vitamin halved the risk of catching a cold among people under ‘short term physical stress’ – or intense exercise. Among the young male swimmers, those who caught a cold and were treated with the supplement shook off their illness twice as quickly as athletes who didn't take the vitamin. Packing in vitamin C rich foods can’t harm – so make sure your diet includes peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, oranges, tomatoes, green peas, and papayas over the next few months.

Rule 5: Increase your zinc intake

Popping zinc lozenges may help to reduce the duration of the common cold by nearly 3 days, according to an analysis research published last year. "One study indicated that zinc lozenges might be more effective for common cold patients with allergies, but we showed that the efficacy is the same for those with and without allergies,” reported Dr Harri Hemila, a cold researcher at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology paper. “Common cold patients should be encouraged to try zinc acetate lozenges not exceeding 100 mg of elemental zinc per day for treating their colds.” Also make sure you get zinc from your food. Spinach, beef, kidney beans, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and watermelon seeds are all rich sources.

Peta Bee

Author Performance Editor of Athletics Weekly Magazine Published on