I’m not a health care professional. I’m reporting on research studies published in scientific journals and from columns in the New York Times.
“In general if the symptoms are from the neck up, moderate exercise is probably acceptable, while bed rest and a gradual progression to normal training are recommended when the illness is systemic.” according to David C. Nieman, Dr. Public Health, Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. [Book published by the National Institute of Health: Exercise, Infection, and Immunity: Practical Applications
The recommendation is based on multiple studies. For example, a study tested a group of 50 moderately fit men and women (ages 18 – 29). All were tested before the experiment and were illness-free. The experimenters tested each subjects fitness. Then they were divided into two groups: exercise (EX) and non-exercise (NEX). All to EX and NEX subjects were inoculated with rhinovirus 16 on two consecutive days. The EX subjects completed 40 minutes of supervised moderate intensity exercise every other day for 10 days. The NEX didn’t exercise. Every 12 hours both the EX and NEX subjects were tested for symptoms of severity of R 16.
The researchers concluded, “These results suggest that moderate exercise training during a rhinovirus-caused upper respiratory infection … do not alter the severity and duration of the illness. [The effect of exercise training on the severity and duration of a viral upper respiratory illness]
“If, however, you do have symptoms below the neck, such as a hacking cough, chest discomfort, nausea, diarrhea or body-wide symptoms like fever, muscle aches or fatigue, ‘then it’s not a good idea to exercise,’ Jeffrey Woods, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” [Will Exercising With a Cold Make You Sicker New York Times]
Symptoms May Change
What starts as a runny nose may become something more serious like bronchitis or the flu. If your symptoms change, then stop exercising.
Potential Serious Consequences of Hard Exercise
In rare cases continuing hard workouts during an acute infection could result in something similar chronic fatigue syndrome, from which it could take two or more years to recover. [Chronic fatigue syndrome and the athlete]
Another possible consequence of working out heavily while fighting an upper respiratory infection is myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, which can cause symptoms such as a rapid or abnormal heart beat, chest pain or shortness of breath.
In 2003 I trained all year for the 1200 km (750-mile) Paris-Brest-Paris. Shortly after I arrived in France I got sick. A friend who was a medical professional told me not to ride because of the low but real risk of serious consequences. Bummer. I didn’t ride.
You Pass the Above the Neck Test: How to Exercise
You’ve passed the above the neck test. Hop on your bike and go for a 30 – 45-minute ride at a true conversational pace. Walk briskly around the neighborhood with your spouse. Lift light weights. Work on your core and flexibility. Practice balance. I’ve written these columns:
- Anti-Aging: Core Strength in 1 Hour a Week
- Anti-Aging: Flexibility in 30 Minutes a Week
- Anti-Aging: Poor Balance and Increased Risk of Premature Mortality
You Don’t Pass the Above the Neck Test
You can work on your flexibility and balance using the exercises in the above columns.
Daily nutrition is a key factor in both longevity and performance on the bike. Use your time to review what you eat and drink. I’ve written these columns:
- Anti-Aging: Nutrition, part 1: Daily Food and Drink
- Anti-Aging: Nutrition, part 2: Supplements: Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants
Most cyclists can improve more by working on mental side of cycling than by training more. I’ve written these columns:
- Anti-Aging: Too Much Stress Shortens Your Life
- Anti-Aging: 8 Tips to Ride Smarter
- 10 Tips to Improve Your Mental Toughness
- The Mental Side of Cycling: An Example
Whether your active physically or work on nutrition and mental skills, you’ll feel better psychologically than if you sat around looking at your screen.
Rates of Decline
How you lose fitness depends on how many years you’ve been cycling and how fit you were before you cut back on exercise.
- Power and capacity to ride hard start to decrease first.
- Endurance doesn’t decrease as fast.
- Muscle strength decreases slowly.
If you’re sick for a week or even two weeks you’ll only lose a little endurance and muscle strength. Unless you race losing power isn’t a big issue. You can read more in these columns:
- Anti-Aging: Use It or Lose It
- Anti-Aging: Use It or Lose It, Part 2
- Anti-Aging: In Your 60s How Fast Do You Lose Fitness?
The Week Off
As we age, we need more recovery. Every two to four months, depending on how my client is progressing, I tell him or her to park the bike in the garage and stop exercising except for core and stretching. Insufficient recovery is one of the causes of getting sick. Although psychologically hard, when the client gets back on the bike, he or she is ready for harder training.
If you get sick, your ratio of exercise to recovery is probably off. Accept the week of moderate to no activity.
You can read more in this column:
The New York Times also has an excellent column on What Should I Eat or Drink When I Have a Cold?
Surfing the web you’ll find articles recommending immune-boosting foods. “But ‘we do not have strong enough information suggesting that everyone should be eating specific foods during a viral infection,’ said Colleen Tewksbury, an assistant professor in nutrition science at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing” [New York Times]
Hydration is especially important. Tewksbury recommends foods and drinks that are both nutritional and comforting.
One study suggests, “That chicken soup may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity.” [Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro]
Another study concluded, “Honey was superior to usual care for the improvement of symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. It provides a widely available and cheap alternative to antibiotics. Honey could help efforts to slow the spread of antimicrobial resistance, but further high quality, placebo controlled trials are needed.” [Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis]
But mixing your honey with a shot of whiskey isn’t a good idea. Drinking any type of alcohol is potentially dangerous if you’re also taking cold medication. And alcohol is dehydrating.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.