Sports: December 2008 Archives


December 25, 2008

One question a lot of athletes have is whether they can work out when they're sick. Obviously, you don't want to lose training time, but on the other hand you don't want to make yourself too sick by training when you should be resting. The conventional wisdom is the "neck" rule (see for instance this article): if your symptoms are above the neck then you can train; if they're below the neck you can't:
David Nieman, Ph.D., who heads the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University, and has run 58 marathons and ultras, uses the "neck rule." Symptoms below the neck (chest cold, bronchial infection, body ache) require time off, while symptoms above the neck (runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing) don't pose a risk to runners continuing workouts.

This view is supported by research done at Ball State University by Tom Weidner, Ph.D., director of athletic training research. In one study, Weidner took two groups of 30 runners each and inoculated them with the common cold. One group ran 30 to 40 minutes every day for a week. The other group was sedentary. According to Weidner, "the two groups didn't differ in the length or severity of their colds." In another study, he found that running with a cold didn't compromise performance. He concluded that running with a head cold--as long as you don't push beyond accustomed workouts--is beneficial in maintaining fitness and psychological well-being.

The relevant paper is here. Most of the people I know tend to stick to easy distance and avoid hard workouts like intervals. I don't know of any science supporting this theory, though.

This NYT article, sent to me by Eu-Jin Goh, also describes another study that indicates that colds don't impair exercise performance:

The studies began, said Leonard Kaminsky, an exercise physiologist at Ball State University, when a trainer at the university, Thomas Weidner, wondered what he should tell athletes when they got colds.

The first question was: Does a cold affect your ability to exercise? To address that, the researchers recruited 24 men and 21 women ages 18 to 29 and of varying levels of fitness who agreed to be deliberately infected with a rhinovirus, which is responsible for about a third of all colds. Another group of 10 young men and women served as controls; they were not infected.

At the start of the study, the investigators tested all of the subjects, assessing their lung functions and exercise capacity. Then a cold virus was dropped into the noses of 45 of the subjects, and all caught head colds. Two days later, when their cold symptoms were at their worst, the subjects exercised by running on treadmills at moderate and intense levels. The researchers reported that having a cold had no effect on either lung function or exercise capacity.

This actually is a fairly surprising result. Most athletes certainly feel their performance suffers when they're sick. I certainly feel worse training when sick, and while I haven't taken any measurements of lung capacity, I do notice that my heart rate is significantly higher. If anyone has access to the original paper, I'd be very interested in reading it. (Abstract here). Initial impressions: the sample size is pretty small. I'd be interested in seeing a crossover study. What about performance at strength exercises?