First let’s make one thing clear: It’s not unusual for a runner to get sick during marathon training.
Why? “Because our bodies’ resources for immunity against viruses are shared by our bodies’ attempts to adapt to training stimuli,” Marty Beene, a Level 2 USA Track & Field certified coach and creator of Be the Runner told me when I interviewed him about this subject.
In other words, your body is working hard and using resources for your workouts and recovery, some of which would normally be used to bolster your immune system. As a result, your immune system is weaker than usual.
According to Coach Marty, this means runners should actually be prepared with a back-up plan for what to do when and not if they get sick.
Personally, I was pretty startled by this answer. “You mean, I should basically plan on getting sick while training for a marathon?” I thought to myself. That’s crazy.
But then again, many things about marathon training are crazy, so I guess just add this one to the list.
It’s not to say that you will definitely get sick during marathon training, but there’s certainly a good chance it might happen and its in your best interest to do everything you can to try to prevent it.
I can certainly attest to all of this via my own experience. The first time I trained for a marathon I got very sick and was down with the flu for almost two weeks. (To my defense, there were many not-so-ideal factors working against me that training cycle — too much traveling, not enough sleep because I was commuting to work almost two hours each way every day, etc.)
Also to my defense, beyond speculative discussion boards, it was very hard to find resources about how I should handle the situation, which was why I decided to talked to Coach Marty about it.
Some more anecdotal evidence: More recently, during my current training cycle, after a few nights of not-so-great sleep I came down with a pretty bad head cold. Thankfully it only lasted a few days.
What To Do If You Get Sick During Marathon Training
Coach Marty said he’s had plenty of experience (albeit, anecdotal) with this situation through coaching clients and his own running career, but he doesn’t have any medical training, so his advice comes exclusively from a coaching perspective.
First, if you get sick during marathon training, how can you determine how much rest you’ll need and when it’s OK to start running again?
Coach Marty told me that when you’re recovering and on the upswing from an illness, general rule of thumb says you can start running again if you don’t have a fever or a cough.
Also, you may have heard this rule before: Some experts say you’re OK to run if your symptoms are from the neck up. If your symptoms are from the neck down, then rest until they’re gone.
On the other hand, if you’ve just got a stuffy nose and feel OK otherwise, Coach Marty says running may actually help to alleviate your symptoms because adrenaline is an antihistamine, which could help loosen up your nasal passages.
“It’s probably OK to start training again once your fever and cough are gone, although you may have to experiment with what ‘my cough is gone’ really means,” he told me. “In my experience, a cough might hang on for weeks, but not get any worse with training.”
That said, Coach Marty pointed out that the most important factor to base your decision on is simply how you feel.
“If your body just feels dead, then it’s telling you it’s not ready for training,” he said.
Another common concern many runners have if they get sick during marathon training is if they should be worried about their performance.
As we all know, missing even just a few days of training can give even the most sane runner a severe case of “My life as I know it is over” syndrome.
Coach Marty says, “In general, most common colds last about a week, give or take a few days, while stronger cold-like illnesses like the flu or bronchitis could last two or more weeks. This is important to know because getting sick while training can destroy your confidence, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.”
I repeat, you don’t have to let getting sidelined by a cold destroy your confidence!
Coach Marty continued, “If you catch a cold and decide not to train for up to a week, it’s unlikely that missing, say, five or six training runs will hurt you that much if your training period spans 12, 16 or 20 weeks. But if you get the flu and end up taking two weeks or more off of running, you can expect that to have a more substantial impact on your goals.”
But either way, don’t freak out! If you’re sick, you’re sick. There’s nothing you can do but rest and get better.
If you don’t rest enough and/or try to make up training that you missed, you’ll likely pay for it in the form of getting sick again or an injury. Speaking from experience, neither scenario is ideal.
Now, back to Coach Marty…
The number one question I had when I was sick for two weeks during marathon training was, where in my training plan should I pick up when I’m ready to run again?
Coach Marty says: “The issue of where to pick up your training when you start running again is tricky. If you’ve only missed a few days, there’s no reason to think you wouldn’t be able to jump right back in with whatever you had planned. But any longer than that, or if your symptoms were severe — even if short-lived — then you should make adjustments.”
One thing he suggested is to continue with your planned training volume, while slightly reducing the intensity.
“Similarly, if your training intensity is relatively low anyway, then reducing the training volume would be wise,” he said. “I would recommend trying about a 20 percent reduction initially — so a 40-mile week would be reduced to 32; a 15-mile run would be reduced to 12. Knowing that these changes will have different effects on different individuals, that 20 percent reduction could really vary from as little as 10 percent to as much as 50 percent.”
In other words, listen to your body and be honest about what you feel you can handle. You’ll get zero benefits from overdoing it, and worse, as I mentioned before, if you do, it could lead to getting sick again or an injury.
Coach Marty also highly recommends keeping a detailed training log, including how you’re feeling, so that you can have a good idea of what to do next time.
Another common concern: While you’re sick, what, if anything, should you do while you’re resting?
Coach Marty said the key to a successful return to training is making sure to take care of yourself while you’re sick.
“You definitely don’t want to do anything intense or very long,” he said. “
The best exercise to fit your needs when you’re sick is walking.
“Walking can be done at an intensity low enough that it won’t interfere with your recovery. Or, if you’re feeling sort of OK, you can walk faster or a little farther,” Coach Marty explained.
He said that in most cases, a 30-minute walk on days when you’re not able to run should be enough.
“The main reason walking works as an activity to do when you can’t train is simply that you are continuing to use your legs,” Coach Marty said. “If you use your legs to do something similar to running, your body will sense that the training adaptations you’ve made are still needed.”
A Few Other Factors to Consider
“Another factor is when the illness occurs in your training cycle. If it’s early enough, you could target about two or three weeks to get completely back onto your original plan,” Coach Marty said.
He continued, “So your first week might be 20 percent less running, the second week could be 10 percent less, then by the third week, you could be back on track. If your illness is relatively close to your goal race, there might not be much you can do to get back on schedule.”
In other words, just accept that you might not perform at the level you were hoping, and move on. There will be more races in the future.
Ultimately, Coach Marty said the most important thing to remember when you return to training is that you need to be flexible.
“Even with the same individual, the effects of different viruses could be vastly different, so a return to training might be done in very different ways,” he said.
– Your immune system is weak during marathon training, so it’s important to take further protections, like getting enough quality sleep, eating well and washing your hands often, in order to reduce your risk of getting sick — your risk is greatly increased while training for a marathon.
– If you do get sick, rest until you feel better and don’t try to overdo it or make up for missed training.
– If you’re deciding whether or not you should run, the most important factor to base your decision on is simply how you feel. Be honest — if you’re really not feeling great, it’s time to take a break.
– You don’t have to let getting sidelined by a cold destroy your confidence — missing a few training runs won’t hurt you that much if your training period spans 12, 16 or 20 weeks.
– Walking is a good option for an alternative form of exercise to keep up your training while sick.
Now your turn! Have you ever gotten sick while training for a marathon? How did you handle it?