Winter Training Q&A | Can I Exercise With A Cold?


By Melody Coleman |

Personal Trainer & Swim Coach

A cold, as described by the American College of Sports Medicine, is an inflammation of the upper respiratory tract caused by a viral infection. They’re a common occurrence, and most of us experience one or two a year, but what does this mean for our training?

Whether or not we actually catch a cold after contact with a cold virus depends on a number of factors. For example; if a person smokes, doesn’t get enough sleep, or experiences high levels of stress, they are more likely to become unwell when a cold virus enters their body. Those who eat a nutrient-rich diet, manage their stress levels, and get adequate sleep stand a stronger chance of not contracting the cold.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to eat clean and stay healthy, sometimes we just get sick. It sucks but it happens. I get a lot of questions from clients this time of year around the topic of colds and sniffles:

“Can I exercise? How much? What can I do? How can I bounce back?”

Well, after personal studying and research, and complete reassurance with my doctor friend, I can give you the following answers…

Can I Exercise With A Cold?


First of all, you need to analyse your symptoms. Some indicate that you’re still fine to work out, some are a definite no-no.

You can train if you’re experiencing

A blocked or runny nose:

A sore throat;

Relatively mild coughing/sneezing;

Symptoms that only affect you “above the neck.”

I’d recommend that you always listen to your body. Even if you feel okay to work out, you should still approach exercise with mindfulness and caution.

runners training

When Should I NOT Exercise?


Exercise is likely a bad idea if you’re experiencing:

Fever or high temperature;

Body chills and shivering;

 Body or muscle aches;

 Nausea or stomach upset;

 Extreme fatigue;

 Swollen lymph glands.

In the case of these symptoms, seek medical advice. You’re probably in need of bed rest, and should wait at least a couple of weeks until resuming intensive exercise.

Your doctor will be able to assess your individual symptoms and prescribe accordingly.

If you’ve determined that you’re fine to exercise – great! But there are still some important things to consider. These are the guidelines I give my clients to follow:

Guidelines For Exercising With A Cold

winter training motivation

1) Stick to mild to moderate intensity exercise. Anything high intensity will probably inhibit your immune function, and make you feel worse. Lower levels of exertion have been shown to improve mood and reduce some symptoms.

2) Keep the duration of your workout under 45 minutes. Do 10 minutes if that’s what feels right. Exercising for too long will affect your body’s ability to fight the infection.

3) Train for health, recovery and mood. This isn’t the time to be aiming for personal bests, or an insane pump – this kind of stress increases cortisol levels, which work against your immune system.

4) Check the side-effects of any medication you’re taking. Some decongestants, or over-use of asthma medication (asthmatics should be extra-careful in these situations) can increase heart rate.

5) Reassess the situation as it continues. What are your symptoms? Are they better/worse? How do you feel?

When To Stop Training…


If you experience any of the following symptoms during training, you should STOP immediately and seek medical advice:

 Increased congestion;

 Difficulty breathing & excessive shortness of breath;

 Coughing or wheezing;

 Chest tightness or pressure;

 Light headedness or dizziness;

 Difficulty standing or balancing;

✗ Loss of vision or hearing.

It’s important to stay aware of how you’re doing throughout any exercise session, particularly when you’re under the weather.

Exercise Intensity Scale


You should be able to return to more intensive workouts just a few days after your symptoms are resolved!

Mild-intensity exercise

This can be defined as gentle cardio, yoga or similar. This level of effort should bring to to around 40-55% of your maximum heart rate (MHR)

Moderate-intensity exercise

This could include regular cardio and a light resistance workout, and shouldn’t take you above 70% MHR.

High intensity workouts

The inclusion of heavy weights, sprints, and anything else requiring high levels of exertion. These are all carried out at above 70% MHR.


Can Exercise Prevent Illness?


Exercise can be a fantastic preventative measure against illness. In fact, those who exercise regularly at moderate intensities are at the lowest risk of infection and disease. However, rigorous exercise without adequate recovery increases your chance of chronic illness.

Studies have shown evidence of immune suppression in athletes, who frequently push themselves to their training limits. It’s also not uncommon for those on extreme weight-loss programmes to become unwell easily.

Weight loss should always be gradual to protect immunity. It’s important for all of us to take care during training, and stick to a relevant recovery regime.

Take Home Message


By now you should be feeling pretty well-informed about the effects of exercise on illness. While exercise has not been shown to reduce the severity or duration of a cold, nor has any medical treatment.

Both can make you feel better, though, and help you cope with the symptoms. You’ll be back to your normal routine before you know it!

So be well, and if you’re not, take it easy! Enjoy caring for your body, even on it’s off-days!

Special Feature for the Olympics: Effects of Excercise on the Immune System Immunology and Cell Biology (2000) 78, 502–509; doi:10.1111/j.1440-1711.2000.t01-7-.x Overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes Laurel T MacKinnon Available:

Freidenreich DJ & Volek JS. Immune responses to resistance exercise. Exerc Immunol rev 2012;18:8-41.

Nieman DC, et al. Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults. Br J Sports Med 2011;45:987-992.

Pyne DB, et al. Training strategies to maintain immunocompetence in athletes. Int J Sports Med 2000;21 Suppl 1:S51-S60.

Wong CM, et al. Is exercise protective against influenza-associated mortality? PLoS ONE 3:e2108

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