Colds and flu

Updated 18 October 2019

You get a cold or flu right before your big race - what now?

Uh-oh! You’ve been training non-stop for a race – but just before the event you wake up with a sore throat. Have all your efforts been in vain?

You did all you could to stay fit during winter to prepare for the races and running events in spring. You also feel proud that you managed to avoid those nasty winter colds and flu – but just as you start cutting back on your training sessions to taper for the race, you feel an ominous tickling in your throat.

Why do runners get sick during tapering?

Tapering is a term used to describe the period of about three weeks leading up to an event such as a marathon, where you start decreasing the intensity and length of your workouts.

While your immune system worked hard during your weeks of training, you now gradually start relaxing.

According to experts, your immune system becomes slightly altered or suppressed by heavy exercise. According to Dr David Neiman, who did research on this phenomenon, your immune system can be weakened for three to 72 hours after an intensive workout.

When your tapering period starts right after your heaviest exercise week, your immune system is still suppressed, which can explain why you suddenly catch that cold.  

Is my marathon doomed if I get sick?

When you have three weeks to go until your first event, there is still time to assess the situation and beat the bug. You need to bear in mind that any running done during the tapering stage won't improve your performance, but simply maintains your fitness level.

According to Lindsey Parry, the most important thing is to get to the starting line well and symptom-free.

This means that you should rest rather than try to catch up on training runs while you're sick. Always consider how you feel. According to Dr Juliet McGrattan, a former general practitioner and keen marathon runner, you need to ask yourself how ill you still are in order to determine whether you are ready to get going again.

Experts also go by the so-called “neck-rule”. All symptoms below the head and neck are indicative of a respiratory infection, and exercise should be avoided at all costs.

If you do have a sore throat and congested nose, it might be nasal drip or allergies, and training is not entirely out of the question, but take care to listen to your body. A higher resting pulse or heart rate, dizziness, a fever and body aches all indicate that you should stay in bed instead of lacing up.

Now what? 

All is not lost. Take your time during this period to fully heal. Here are some tips to encourage a speedy recovery:

  • See your doctor if you are unsure whether your symptoms indicate an allergy, a cold or flu. They will point you in the right direction and prescribe the medication you need.
  • Rest and try not to panic. No amount of training will improve your performance during this time.
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid sugar and alcohol to help nourish your body.    

Am I race-ready?

There are ways to help you determine if you are race-ready on the day:

  • Measure your heartbeat or pulse as soon as you wake up – a normal resting heartbeat (anywhere between 60 and 100 beats for an adult, depending on size, overall health and fitness levels) is a good indication that you are ready.
  • Make sure that you can breathe normally and that there are no more signs of chest infection or phlegm.
  • Listen to your body – if you feel abnormally tired or out of breath, you might not be ready for the race.
  • Remember that it’s okay to pull out of a marathon and not finish. Your health is more important at this stage – and there will always be other races.

Image credit: iStock


From our sponsor

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules