The Common Cold: When Athletes Should & Should Not Train

by Tara Hackney | Leave a Comment

It is estimated that the average adult has between 1 and 6 colds each year,1 but athletes who engage in heavy training and competition may suffer more frequent colds.2

A cold can present with varying symptoms and severity, including sore throat, coughing, sneezing, fatigue and a fever among other things. With the winter months and flu season upon us, let’s take a closer look at exercising with a common cold.

Risk factors for Catching a Cold
There is research to support that vigorous exercise can increase your risk and incidence of upper respiratory infections.5 This evidence suggests that heavy acute or chronic exercise is related to an increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infections in athletes.6 When an athlete does become ill, their training and performance are limited. Many of these research studies were performed in runners, and the data shows that runners who were training higher mileages per week or per year showed increased risk of infections.5

However, moderate exercise may stimulate the immune system in contrast to intense exercise, which may decrease immune function.7 This suggests that exercise in moderate amounts is beneficial for the body and the immune system but vigorous and intense training may need to be altered to decrease incidence of illness.

When to Train
If symptoms are “above the neck,” such as stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, or sore throat with no other body symptoms, then the athlete can proceed cautiously through a workout at half speed. If their congestion clears within a few minutes of starting exercise, the intensity can gradually be increased.3

When Not to Train
If an athlete has “below the neck” symptoms, including fever, aching muscles, coughing, vomiting or diarrhea, the athlete should not train.3 Athletes who feel they may be getting ill should reduce their training schedule for 1 or 2 days. Exercising during an incubation phase of an infection may worsen an illness.4 Symptom severity and duration of illness may be increased if one is exercising during an illness. Training can resume depending on the type of infection beginning at moderate levels and gradual returning to max, which can range between 3-5 days for up to 3 weeks.6

When to Play
Returning to training and returning to play or competition are different. Return to competition criteria is stricter than return to training or practice. Return to play is contingent on a clear physical exam.6 Ideally, the athlete has returned to training at moderate levels and progressed back to their maximum level prior to competition.

Ways to reduce risk of illness:2,5
• Eat a balanced diet
• Keep stress to a minimum
• Avoid overtraining
• Avoid fatigue
• Obtain adequate sleep
• Space intense workouts and competitive events as far apart as possible
• Wash your hands
• Do not share water bottles

If you do end up getting a cold this winter, use these tips as guidance on whether you should keep training or should take some time off. When in doubt, rest and recover until you are feeling better.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

  • References:
    1. Beneson AS. Acute Viral Respiratory Disease in Control of Communicable Diseases in Man. Washington DC: American Public Health Association; 1975:262-266.
  • 2. Nieman DC. Exercise, immunity and respiratory infections. Sport Sciexch. 1992;4:39.
  • 3. Eichner ER. Neck check. Runner’s World. 1992;27: 16.
  • 4. Fitzgerald L. Overtraining increases the susceptibility to infection. Int J Sports Med. 1991;12:S5-S8.
  • 5. Weidner TG, Sevier TL. Sport, Exercise, and the Common Cold. Journal of Athletic Training. 1996;31(2):154-159.
  • 6. Gałązka-Franta A, Jura-Szołtys E, Smółka W, Gawlik R. Upper Respiratory Tract Diseases in Athletes in Different Sports Disciplines. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2016;53:99-106.
  • 7. Nieman DC. Current perspective on exercise immunology. Curr Sports Med Rep, 2003; 2: 239 -242
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