by Jason Heavey in Health + Nutrition

Should you race while being ill?

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IT’S a nightmare for every runner!

You enter a race, train hard, eat well and then a few days before the big day you start sniffing. Then you start coughing and your glands start swelling. The curse of the cold has struck at the worst possible time.

In total frustration, you question why you couldn’t have come down with a cold during your training. A few days off wouldn’t have had any great effect on your training and subsequent race performance.

What is the right thing to do when you are ill with a virus on the day of race? I know some runners who would automatically pull out and put it down to bad luck. But I was torn between two differing viewpoints when faced with this dilemma in my last race.

The dilemma

It was a 10K and I had trained hard for about five weeks. The course was pretty flat and I was secretly hoping for a Personal Best (PB). But on the Thursday before race day (Sunday), I started to feel rough and felt like I was coming down with something. By the evening the cold was really kicking in and I was consigned to bed with hot lemon and headache tablets. I felt gross on the Friday and Saturday and kept debating in my own mind whether I should run on the Sunday. My kids told me to run. My partner told me I would be mad to run! The advice was conflicting and wasn’t helping me make a decision.

I decided to leave it until race day, but on the Sunday morning I still felt pretty gross. However, one piece of advice had stuck in my mind. A friend gave me his golden rule on running while ill: “If the symptoms are above the neck, then run. If you have symptoms below the neck, then don’t run.”

My symptoms were above the neck. I had headaches, a runny nose and a sore throat. The throat provided the main discomfort and was very dry despite drinking constantly. There were no symptoms below the neck. Crucially my chest felt clear.

After some consideration I decided to go ahead and run. On the start line I still felt decidedly under the weather but was secretly pleased that I had decided to take the plunge. I knew that if I’d pulled out and stayed at home I would have regretted it.

How did it turn out?

When the race began my expectations were low in terms of time. I mean, there was no chance of a PB with a stinking cold, was there?

I set off at just under eight-minute mile pace and got into my rhythm after about a mile. I felt OK by halfway and wasn’t really thinking about the cold. I took on water at the water stations, which lubricated the dry throat. But whatever virus I had was having no real effect on my legs. With 1K to go I glanced at my watch and couldn’t believe my eyes. I was on course for a PB if I could just hold it together and run a five-minute last kilometre. I found some extra energy and fairly sprinted through the final 200 metres. I clocked 50m 20s, which was a PB by about 30 seconds.

I was exhilarated and although I did suffer a bit with my cold for the next day or two, it was worth every cough and sniff.

So the mantra rang true for me: above the neck=run; below the neck= don’t run.

What would you do?

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