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Survival Guide: Training and the Common Cold

The common cold. Sigh. We all know what it feels like and we all get frustrated by time off the bike or out of training. The average adult suffers from between one and six colds every year and it has been suggested that the common cold causes more problems to athletes than all other diseases combined!

Although it’s mainly a winter problem, peaking between late December and early March in our climate, it can strike at any time of the year. In fact, the leading medical problem effecting athletes at both Winter and Summer Olympics was the common cold! Just to make matters worse, training itself can make you more susceptible to both the number and the severity of colds you suffer with.

So how do you survive?

The cause

Colds are upper respiratory tract infections that predominantly affect the nasal part of the respiratory system, although can be much further reaching and can affect the ears and throat as well as causing headaches, muscle aches and fever. The symptoms are usually short-lived, lasting a few days with a few lingering symptoms lasting longer, especially cough. Symptoms peak within one to three days and generally clear by one week.

Colds are caused by viruses, of which there are literally hundreds of different types. One of the biggest classes of viruses that cause the common cold is the rhinovirus, of which there are over 110 types alone! Contrary to popular belief, the transmission of these viruses is mostly through hand-to-hand contact then to your nostrils or eyes when you touch your face, rather than through droplets in the air.

The treatment

There are loads of old wife’s tales out there about how to best get rid of colds, including sweating it out! Lots of scientific studies have been done in an attempt to discover which treatments work best, but unfortunately nobody has come up with a cure yet!

The following are treatments that have been shown to help by improving symptoms, but there is not much evidence that any of these actually help you get over a cold any quicker.


  • Pro: Antihistamines such as chlopheniramine (Piriton) may improve runny nose and sneezing.

  • Con: Does not effect overall duration of symptoms.
    Can cause sedation.
    May impair thermoregulation so be careful if using while training.


  • Pro: May provide short-term (3-10 hr) relief of congestive symptoms.

  • Con: Effects not long lasting.
    Can cause reactive hyperaemia (soon after decongestant wears off blood flow increases to cause further congestion).
    May contain banned substances (such as ephedrine) so do not use if racing!

Vitamin C

  • Pro: May slightly reduce duration of cold symptoms.

  • Con: None that I can think of. Any extra your body doesn’t need you will pee out!
  • Note: Having a good intake of Vitamin C in your diet is probably more useful at preventing you from catching colds rather than treating a cold once you have one.


  • Pro: May slightly reduce duration of cold symptoms.


    • Pro: Only useful if you have a bacterial infection.

    • Con: As viruses cause the vast majority of colds, antibiotics will have no effect on symptoms or the duration of illness.

    The effect of training

    Periods of heavy and intense training have been shown to suppress the body’s immune function. It has been suggested that there is an “open window” 3-12 hrs after prolonged endurance exercise when your body’s defence is decreased and you are more susceptible to catching infections, such as a cold. For this reason, try to space hard training sessions or competitions as far apart as possible so your body has some time for recovery.

    Grab some extra Zzzzzz’s

    To train or not to train?

    Knowing when to train really is a matter of judgement. The trouble is, more likely than not, you are going to want to convince yourself that you are fit to carry on. Remember to try to stay objective about it – which is the most difficult part of all and something I still struggle with!

    Exercising during the “incubation period” of the illness (when you have caught the virus but the infection has not reached it’s peak yet) may worsen the illness. So, if you feel that you are coming down with something then train cautiously because things may get worse before they get better.

    The “neck check” is a rough guide to help you make this decision.

    • If your symptoms are “above the neck”, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, or a sore throat, then it is possible to cautiously try low intensity (aerobic or recovery level) training. If you start to feel better as you warm-up then you can continue the session, if you begin to feel worse then you should take the day off. Interval training is definitely out for a few days.

    • If the symptoms are “below the neck”, such as coughing up nasty gunk, muscle aches and fever, then you should take a couple of days off training then reassess how you are feeling.
    • If you have symptoms of extreme tiredness, muscle aches and swollen glands then you should take a full week off training then reassess how you are feeling. You should only start training again after the symptoms have resolved fully and get back into it slowly.

    Another guide to whether you are coming down with a cold is your morning heart rate. If your morning heart rate is more than 10 bpm higher than usual you may be coming down with something and should take the day off. Just remember that your morning heart rate is effected by other factors including temperature, fatigue and overtraining – although the net effect is that if your heart rate is elevated you probably should not be training anyway!

    Top Tips to Avoiding Catching Colds + Looking after yourself so your immune system is in top shape:

    • 1. Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

    • 2. Keep other life stresses to a minimum (easier said than done!!!).
    • 3. Avoid overtraining.
    • 4. Avoid rapid weight loss.
    • 5. Get adequate amounts of sleep (at least 8 hrs a night, especially if training).
    • 6. Space hard training sessions or competitions as far apart as possible.
    • 7. Check your morning heart rate, if it is over 10 bpm higher than usual then you may be tired, overtraining, or coming down with a cold… take a break!

    Top Tips Once You’ve Got a Cold + Looking after yourself so you can minimise your time out of training:

    • 1. “Above the neck” symptoms mean you can try training at low intensity for a couple of days then reassess.

    • 2. “Below the neck” symptoms mean you need to lay-off for a couple of days then reassess.
    • 3. Definitely do not train if you are taking antibiotics.
    • 4. Try taking some extra Vitamin C and/or zinc supplements, which may reduce the duration of the illness.
    • 5. If you really want something to improve the symptoms, try decongestants or antihistamines but remember to check for banned substances if you’re racing!
    • 6. Make sure you have one week back training and free of symptoms before training at high intensity.

    As a final note, very occasionally more sinister chest infections can masquerade as a cold. If you are not getting better, particularly if you have a high fever that is not settling, then you should see your GP.

    DISCLAIMER: Advice and information is provided via Clinic on a free of charge basis as a supportive service to women in sport. It should not replace the use of your General Practitioner for medical problems.

    Copyright 2006 Dr K Hurst

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