Cold and Flu: Minimising Risk and Knowing When to Stop Training

 Lisa Tyack - braving minus 5 degrees for a running race!

Lisa Tyack - braving minus 5 degrees for a running race!

As I sit here writing this blog, I am trying to fight off this two week long cold with my homemade remedy. For the last year, I have felt great and managed to avoid the cold and flu, which made it even harder when I was recently struck down with a cold one week before a big race. This made me take a step back and think “should I be exercising with a cold or flu?”

I’m sure many of you have heard the saying “If it’s below the head, stay in bed”, and to be honest, it’s pretty spot on! Let me start by making a simple differentiation between the common cold or the flu. The cold and flu are both caused by viruses, but the differentiation is the type of virus that causes each. The flu (aka influenza) is always caused by one of the influenza viruses, whilst the cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses (the most common being rhinovirus). Symptoms of the flu and cold include; runny nose, sinus congestion, sneezing and a sore throat. Fever, fatigue, muscle aches, severe cough and headaches are more commonly associated with the flu. Generally, symptoms can last for a week or even longer. When people say "Don’t worry, the contagious part is over" and you are thinking “I don’t care – stay away from me!”, they can actually be right, as the most likely time to pass on a cold is often in the first 24-48 hours (when you often don’t even have any symptoms).

So if unfortunately like me you have come down with a cold or flu, it leaves you with the question, "Should I continue training?". The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following; 
- If you have purely a head cold or sore throat, you may continue to exercise, however your intensity should be monitored (moderate activity is recommended, rather than strenuous, intense activity).
- If your symptoms include a fever, swollen glands, extreme aches and pains and respiratory infections, you should rest until these symptoms have subsided. Once they have stopped, gradually return to exercise.
Remember that basic exercise physiology supports that taking two weeks off training will not affect your overall aerobic fitness if you usually train consistently. Your body is fighting for energy to help you get better, so don’t further deprive your body of this energy by exercising when you shouldn’t. I have personally gone against this advice for an important race, and I can tell you I suffered badly and would never do it again.

So how do I minimise my risk of getting the flu or a cold?
There are so many remedies, medications and a lot of advertisements out there filling you with an overload of information on how to get through the ‘flu season’ unscathed. As the seasons are changing and the temperatures cool down, we often blame the cold weather on ‘catching a cold’, however plenty of doctors actually support that this is not the cause of a cold. They suggest that there is an increased occurrence owing to;
- People spend more time inside due to the weather, which means generally there are more people in confined spaces, resulting in a larger spread of the flu.
- People typically decrease their amount of physical activity due to bad weather which generally leads to a higher occurrence of the flu.
Now, I’m not saying sit inside your bedroom and never leave for the next 3 months and avoid all contact with people, but some simple tips can go a long way.

Washing your hands with ethyl alcohol hand gel is actually more effective than washing your hands with soap and water or an anti-bacterial soap at reducing the occurrence of a cold.  

Exercise and a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables has been well established as one of the most effective ways to decrease the occurrence of a cold or flu. In one study, 115 women were divided into two groups – one exercised for 45 minutes, five days a week for a year, whilst the other stretched for 45 minutes once a week. The occurrence of colds was three times higher in the stretching group compared to the exercising group, suggesting that exercise boosts the immune system. In a study examining 700 recreational runners, 61% of runners reported they had fewer colds since they began running. Walking has also shown to be effective at minimising the occurrence of colds – one study examined 150 people who walked regularly for 12 weeks and found they developed half the number of sore throats and colds of those who are less active.
A study has also found that out of 40 men and women who had the flu shot, the 20 who completed exercise and hour prior to having their shot actually had a better immune response to the shot. When you exercise, immune cells circulate through the body faster, meaning they are able to kill bacteria and viruses quicker, allowing a better chance of fighting off the flu. Sometimes, extreme strenuous exercise can increase your risk of getting a cold, which often happens to marathon runners and triathletes after a big event so remember to know your limits and look after yourself post event.

Eat.Often when we are are sick and not exercising, we worry about the amount of calories consumed because we are eating as normal, but decreasing our physical activity. Don't worry! Our bodies need energy to help our cells fight off our sickness. Depriving ourselves of calories will only slow the fighting process down. Ensure these are health foods of course!

Sleep can affect the occurrence of colds and flus. The American Council on Exercise reports that major sleep disruption (5 hours or less per night) can suppress the immune system, resulting in a higher occurrence of illness.

Honey! A study comparing honey to a common cough medicine in adults has found that honey may be more efficient in preventing and/or improving the recovery from an infection or illness. Darker honey, such as buckwheat honey, has more antimicrobial compounds and antioxidant activity. My home made remedy I have started using is 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and a tablespoon of honey warmed up!

Echinacea, zinc and Vitamin C are a topic of hot debate and are traditionally used to combat cold symptoms. Recent research analysing the effect Vitamin C has on decreasing the occurrence or severity of cold symptoms is fairly inconclusive. Zinc plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, however its effectiveness in fighting symptoms of the common cold still remains controversial, with weak evidence supporting the use of zinc lozenges to reduce cold duration. Echinacea may reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms such as the severity of a cough, headache and nasal congestion. Personally, if I feel these supplements help in any way, I will take them, but I will not rely on them to make my cold go away.  

Remember, it comes down to the individual and you have to stick with what works for you. Always consult a doctor if your symptoms are not getting any better. Rather than locking yourself away and avoiding sick people for the rest of your life, it appears a healthy lifestyle with exercise, adequate sleep and hand washing hygiene remain the easiest, most effective ways to stay away from the flu this season.

Happy training and stay healthy!

Kate 

 

 

References
Chest & throat ailments : 20 AIDS TO EASE COLD & FLU ILLS. (2014). In National Geographic, National Geographic complete guide to natural home remedies: 1,025 easy ways to live longer, feel better, and enrich your life. Washington, District of Columbia: National Geographic Society. 

Cold and flu survival guide. (2012). In Harvard Medical School, Harvard Medical School special health reports. Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publications. 

McMillan, S., Gildiner, C., Brady, C., & Crook, A. (2001). ask an expert. Chatelaine, 74(3), 30

Moyad, M. A. (2009). Conventional and Alternative Medical Advice for Cold and Flu Prevention: What Should Be Recommended and What Should Be Avoided?. Urologic Nursing, 29(6), 455-458

Neville, K. (2008). Combating Colds, Fending Off the Flu: What Works?. Environmental Nutrition, 31(1), 2.

Stanten, M., & Yeager, S. (2001). Beat the Cold and Flu Season. Prevention, 53(12), 70.