Marathon Update: Sickness When to Run and When to Take a Break

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Fiona McMahon PT, DPT

Hi everyone I am writing you from week 22 of training for the NYC marathon. This year I am running the marathon, sponsored by Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, in order to support New York’s Team Tisch in raising money for multiple sclerosis research. Currently, we are only about 1000$ from our goal, time is getting tight so don’t forget to donate today. Click here to donate to Team Tisch MS NYC Marathon to support research for treatment and prevention of multiple sclerosis.

Today, I want to write about a fact of life for almost every human being, illness. Getting sick can be vexing for just about every marathon runner. It puts us in this nearly existential running dilemma, “Do you run and risk getting more sick?” or “ Do I take the rest, and miss a potentially race making run?”. The question can sometimes make you feel even more lousy than whatever you are actually sick from.

In my training for this marathon, I have been confronted with this question way too many times. I’ve been sick 4 times in the last 22 weeks, total bummer, but I live in a super crowded city and work with children so I am not surprised. P.S. Working with kiddos is the best thing ever and is totally worth whatever puke, snot ridden illness I get, so I am definitely not complaining.

A lot of runners have “the neck rule”. I first came across this rule as a high school runner, and I see it all over running publications. It has been a useful tool for me for years in determining when to take a knee and focus on feeling better. The neck rule is not necessarily running exclusive, so feel free to apply it to most workouts. Basically it goes like this, if your symptoms are above the neck, i.e. congestion, sore throat, etc, you are generally safe to run. If your symptoms are below the neck, i.e. fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, etc, it is time to give your body a rest and let your immune system do its thing. It can be so frustrating to skip a run, especially when your illness falls on a major training session, but in the long run, you will end up healthier and you will be able to return to your prior level of performance sooner. This doesn’t necessarily mean that head only symptoms mean you absolutely should run. It’s a basic guideline: if you are feeling too run down and fatigued to run, listen to your body, it’s pretty smart.

When you are starting to feel better go back into things slowly. Once your fever has been gone for about 24 hours without fever reducers, vomiting or diarrhea have cleared, and you can eat and drink normally, ease back in. Plan your next run on a treadmill or in short loops by your home so you can cut it short if need be. You don’t want to be stuck 8 miles out from home, finding you are still really worn down from being ill. Been to that show and got that T-shirt.

Marathon training is as much mental as it is physical. The mental challenges can present themselves in surprising ways. One of the biggest pitfalls runners “run” (oops, not sorry about that pun) into following an illness, is the desire to cram all of the mileage they have missed into a few days following an illness. Don’t do it. Most training plans are designed to challenge the body at a level it can tolerate as well as provide enough rest to build up strength and functional reserves. Adding a huge glut of extra miles in the middle of it, can really throw things off and put you at a greater risk of injury or even additional illness. Let those miles go and be confident in the fact that you allowed your body to heal and get to full strength.

Please click here to donate to TISCH Multiple sclerosis research.

Additionally, check out my progress in physical therapy here:

 

And for more on training while sick, click here.

 

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