When you have an established exercise regimen, such as running, you typically don’t want to interrupt your routine. But what if you’re not feeling well and have developed a cough?
Well, sometimes it’s all right to run with a cough, and sometimes it’s in your best interests not to.
A general guide for exercise and illness suggested by the Mayo Clinic includes the “above the neck/below the neck” decision criteria:
- Above the neck. Exercise is usually OK if your signs and symptoms are all above the neck. This includes nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, or an occasional dry cough.
- Below the neck. Take a break from running and other exercise if your signs and symptoms are below the neck. This includes diarrhea, chest congestion, or a hacking or productive cough.
Even if your signs and symptoms are above the neck, consider cutting back on the length and intensity of your workout. A slow jog or walk might be more appropriate than pushing to meet a time or distance milestone that’s based on when you were feeling well.
When you’re making your “above the neck/below the neck” determination, pay close attention to your cough.
A dry cough does not produce mucus or phlegm. They’re commonly caused by airway irritants. A dry cough is also called a nonproductive cough. If you have an occasional dry cough, you’re likely OK to go for your run.
A productive cough is one that has you coughing up mucus or phlegm. If you have a productive cough that interferes with your breathing, especially when your heart rate is up, consider postponing your run until it has improved.
If a cough lasts for three weeks or less, it’s referred to as an acute cough. A cough that lasts longer than eight weeks is referred to as a chronic cough.
Common causes of acute coughs include:
- flu (influenza)
- common cold
- inhalation of irritant
Common causes of chronic coughs include:
You might worry that taking a few days off from exercise will result in a loss of performance. Serious runners might be concerned about reducing their VO2 max — the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen you can transport and use during intense exercise.
According to a 1993 article in the American Physiological Society, for well-trained athletes, only minimal reduction occurs in VO2 max for the first 10 days of inactivity.
Every person and every running situation is unique. For that reason, the decision about whether or not to run with a cough should be individualized. If you decide — after analyzing symptoms such as the type of cough you have — that it’s OK to run, consider scaling back your distance and intensity.
Regular exercise is part of a health regimen to build and support a healthy body. Let your body guide you. Symptoms and signs of illness can be your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong.
If you have widespread muscle aches, are feeling fatigued, or have a fever, consider taking a few days off from exercise. If the symptoms persist, see your doctor.