The Common Cold Has Little Effect on Exercise Performance and Recovery

September 4, 2009

I wanted to do a post about having the symptoms of the common cold and whether you should still exercise or take a break entirely. With the weather beginning to cool down and seasons changing in much of the world, many people tend to get a bit sick. If this happens to you are you going to workout just as hard, back off a bit, or skip your workout entirely? I always had a hunch of the right thing to do, but never had any scientific research to back this up. Well I just stumbled across a study that backs up my beliefs on working out while having a cold.

the common cold

[Jack doesn’t have a cold but seems to be sick in other ways. What he has isn’t really contagious, but you probably want to keep your distance. “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy”.]

A Study With a Surprising Find…

Here is the official name of this study: Effect of a Rhinovirus-Caused Upper Respiratory Illness on Pulmonary Function Test and Exercise Responses…which basically means how having a cold affects exercise performance. So this link is just to an abstract…you have to pay to get the full version. Luckily, I have seen this summarized in a few locations.

Some Brave and Crazy Folks Got a Cold on Purpose

Researchers found 24 men and 21 women who were willing to be deliberately infected with the rhinovirus…basically they agreed to get the common cold on purpose. Ten other men and women served as a control and didn’t get infected. I would have volunteered for this part of the study, just as long as I didn’t have to get too close to any of zombies in the first group. At the start of the study, the researchers tested the lung capacity and exercise capacity of all of the participants.

The Time for the Deliberate Infection Was Near…

A cold virus was dropped into the nose of 45 courageous men and women and they all caught head colds. That must have been a strong strain of rhinovirus! Two days later when the deliberate infection was at its worst this group ran on a treadmill at both moderate and intense levels. The researchers reported that having a cold had no effect on either lung function or exercise capacity. They also found that having a cold had no impact on the metabolic response of exercise.

So Does Exercise Interfere With Your Ability to “Get Better”?

Prepare for another lengthy name…The Effect of Exercise Training on the Severity and Duration of a Viral Upper Respiratory Illness. In normal terms…does exercise lengthen the period of time it takes to recover from a cold? I always had a feeling that it wouldn’t make much of a difference as long as it was just a “head cold”. Turns out I was right.

“Stick This In Your Nose…It’s a Vitamin…Promise”!

So 50 more brave souls were infected by the scientists with the secret virus…”Rhinovirus 16″ to be exact…when will this madness end? Shoot, I just gave away the name of the secret virus. So out of these 50 people, 34 were in the exercise group and 16 wound up doing nothing (probably watching bad day-time TV on their couch curled up in a blanket).

The Active Group and 16 Slackers Had Similar Recovery Times

The researchers found no difference in symptoms between the two groups. Recovery time was the same as well. Dr. Kaminsky now encourages people to continue to exercise when they have head colds, but to avoid exercise or be much more cautious when someone has a chest cold. He doesn’t believe people should skip exercise when they have a cold, because many people catch a cold when trying to build an exercise habit. Skipping exercise may mean that they never come back to the gym.

“I Think You Left Your Wet Kleenex on My Treadmill”

So it is fine to train when you have a head cold, but be careful if the sickness is in your chest. If you do go to the gym, make sure you don’t leave your tissue paper all over the place. There have been numerous times when I am about ready to do HIIT on a treadmill and someone has left me a little rhinovirus-filled souvenir.

Note: I wanted to thank all of you guys who have spread the word about “Vacation Body Blueprint”…it has been downloaded more times the first 6 days, than my previous free report the “Supplement Conspiracy” did in 6 months. I plan on pushing this one pretty hard. Any help is greatly appreciated! Here is a guest post on Craig Ballantye’s blog that I completed earlier this week: Beach Body vs Gym Body – An Interview and Free Report

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

ThatDude September 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Haha love this, atleast in my personal experience I almost always felt better after training sick, but that was probably because when I’m sick all I do is act lazy all over the house.

By the way I bought eat stop eat, looking into reading it right now. (last time I used a kinda messed up diet, not enough calories, etc.)

Scott from Canada September 4, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I also feel better after I work out hungover.

Sue September 4, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Rusty, good interview over at Craigs.

Greg at Live Fit September 4, 2009 at 11:50 pm

If I’m suffering from a mild head cold, a good run usually make me feel better. Seems weird, I know.

Chris September 5, 2009 at 12:40 am

Rusty, thanks for all the tips. I’ve actually been swimming for the past 12 months and I haven’t gotten any colds during that time, and I usually get a cold every winter. My asthma’s gotten better also, actually haven’t taken any meds for the past 8 months. Have you seen any studies on exercise, specifically swimming on the respiratory tract?

Ona September 5, 2009 at 1:25 am

Thank you for destroying yet another excuse for not going at it exercise-wise.

Ron September 5, 2009 at 4:06 am

I knew it! I ran cross country back in the day I always felt better after a workout when I had a cold. It was rare that I was sick due to the amount of training I did back in high school.
Nice job Rusty

tf September 5, 2009 at 6:56 am

nice book!!! a video guide like craig ballentine’s is great too…maybe next time. just shoot the entire with description(like the mainstream’s) routine so ppl can get more specific stuff!

Adam September 5, 2009 at 9:50 am

I LOVE to go workout when I have a head cold. It starts out blah, but after my workout, I feel like a million bucks.

Honestly, the only negative about it is I feel bad possibly spreading my germs. I try to carry a paper towel with disinfectant spray to wipe down dumbbells and what not after use but thats generally why I wouldn’t want to go, just to look out for others in the gym haha.

Peter September 5, 2009 at 10:41 am


Great post. I have always assumed that it wouldn’t make a difference as well. In fact I am with “ThatDude” on this one because I always feel better after I work out with a cold.

I have an un-related comment about HIIT. In your book “Vacation Body Blueprint” you outlined an HIIT workout on a treadmill. I gave it a shot for the first time and loved it but my only problem was when I got to the point when I was basically sprinting on the treadmill I was moving so fast that I worried about accidentally taking a wrong step and at that speed it would be a disaster. It’s not that I was really having a problem going that fast I just was worried about face planting on the treadmill and then being launched backwords if I did mess up. Since then I tried raising the ramp on the treadmill just a few points and I have found that I get the same HGH flush while running at a more controllable speed. Just a thought! Thanks!!!

Nove September 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm

i still go to the gym when i get cold………

by the way, thx for ur “Vacation Body Blueprint”………it’s great…..

Anna @ pathtofatloss September 5, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Hey Rusty, great post! I always worked out even though I had a cold (never had a bad chest cold) although I would usually skip the gym and just get my workout in at home. I had a fear of getting worse (who knows how much germs there are on the gym equipment and in the air) and getting other infected. The good things is, I don’t remember being sick for the last year and a half or so. It must be the exercise and good nutrition – imagine that 🙂

Enjoy your long weekend!


Daniel September 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm

No Excuses! Ha

cyan September 6, 2009 at 6:32 am

Hey Rusty you took away my excuse for skipping a day of exercise. Shoot!!!!

Hazard September 6, 2009 at 6:51 am

I had a nice dose of Swine Flu however I had just joined a new gym and was determined to get my moneys worth. I worked through it doing a fairly intensive westside style regime. Althoug I felt like crap afterwards it never really had any effect on my recovery other than prolonging the cough I had.

martin September 6, 2009 at 2:33 pm

How do you lose fat in one area? I have just finished a 8 week holiday, my waist size has increased and I have a little fat on my stomach. I am still slim in every other area is there a way to lose fat in your abs and nowhere else.

Elle September 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Do you think it’s simply the endorphin-rush, Rusty? I run on a headcold and ALWAYS feel better. Nice to see that some science concurs. ~Elle

Dan September 8, 2009 at 8:59 am

Agh, Rusty… I can’t stand it when sick people come to the gym… Please, if you’ve got to workout when you’re sick, do it outside of a gym. With everybody sharing weights, equipment, and working closely with one another, this is just common courtesy. You’re going there for your health, help everyone stay healthy as well.

I realize we all have to live your lives, even when sick, and our lives don’t stop when we get sick. I understand sick individuals going to the grocery store or the movies, but the gym is all about health, and due to the nature of what we do at gyms, spreading germs is fairly easy. Please consider this when you decide you just have to get that one workout in. Just run outside or do some pushups to hold you over. This would be a great time to use one of Rusty’s bodyweight workouts at home.

I’d be the first to tell someone to kiss my *ss if they told me not to workout, but I certainly understand people not wanting to catch my cold, and I respect that. I’d find another place/method to workout while I recover.

Dan September 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

Pretty cool stuff. Back in college at UCSC I would go get exercise on purpose when I had a cold…I always seem to get better faster. Nice to know that there was some science behind it. In my head I just thought I was sweating all the bad crap out.


Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips September 13, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Makes sense Rusty. After all the common cold is a virus so the recovery time should be mainly based on the strength of your immune system.

Just have one question though. I have read that intense exercise can suppress your immune system. In the second study, the participants are doing 40 minutes exercise per day at 70% of their maximum heart rate – a rate which I would classify as moderate exercise. On this blog you are a big advocate of HIIT. Could this not potentially suppress your immune system and therefore increase the recovery time for a cold?

I only ask because in the past when I have had colds I have carried on exercising. A light session has generally made me feel a little bit better but an intense sprint session has often left me feeling a lot more run down the next day. Could just be coincidence but would like to know your thoughts.



kirstie September 15, 2009 at 9:08 am

“…a little rhinovirus-filled souvenir.” Hilarious and disgusting. This is an interesting post and now I have to shake off the “coming down with a cold” excuse. And having a 4 year old makes it a frequent one 😉 Rusty, I’ve been following your site for over a year and it’s always upbeat, inspiring and informative. Keep up the great work!

Yavor October 1, 2009 at 7:05 am

Exercising often (like lifting 4+ times per week) seems to help me get sick less often. Before I got into fitness I would get sick super often, but this changed.

Anyway, I agree, the common cold doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train. that being said, this summer I got super sick for like two days. I don’t know what kind of flu it was, but it was bad. Like no training for me bad…


Adam @ Order Carisoprodol Online November 9, 2009 at 1:48 am

Yeah I agree to this blog that common cold and fever has a little effect on exercise performance and recovery. Most of the athletes will be considering taking a variety of over-the-counter and prescribed elixirs and potions with the intent of easing aches, pains, sniffles, sore throats, coughs, blocked air passageways, and general ‘blah’ feelings. Many of the symptoms of colds and flu are self-limited. By drinking plenty of fluids, getting extra rest, and judiciously using a pain and fever reducer, you will often obtain adequate relief from your symptoms. Whenever particular symptoms are preventing you from getting a good night’s rest, one of the cold/flu remedies might be helpful.

Susan December 7, 2009 at 12:09 am

I just got over a pretty bad cold and I couldn’t workout for about a week! It always makes me feel worse because I always feel like I am losing ground. I couldn’t do anything though because the cold turned into a sinus infection which just made things worse.

Yavor- I would say the same thing. I don’t think I get sick as much as I used to now that I have been consistently working out.


Seane September 7, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I am of the belief that sweating your cold out is actually a positive remedy, however that would depend on if you have a sinus cold or other symptoms. Of course your level of ability will be limited and you should cease if tired as rest is equally as important. We know are own bodies and what is best when that cold hits. Equally remaining away from your local gym is courteous and should be mandatory.

Ron November 29, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I believe a body’s well being is also in the mind, and yes, I do go for a run when I had a cold. Fresh air outside is better than being indoors, and of course, I drink lots of warm water because food just don’t taste so good when you have a cold.

Sander December 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for explanation. This question occupied my head for a long time. At shared files SE I’ve found some books about physical activities (anaerobic and erobic exercises) and the opinions were different. As for me, I believe that autosuggestion plays the most important role. For example, I believe that if I do physical exersices I will survive))) and it helps, but other people think that if they have a cold they should stay in bed otherwise they will got ill more seriously. I think it depends.

Mesogold March 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm

@Sander, I have a friend like that. If he has even a sniffle he won’t do anything that exerts energy! I don’t think his attack plan is working, because he is always sick!

I know that when I have a head cold I always feel better when I can fight through a workout. I have to be careful that I don’t run myself down too much, so getting a good night’s rest after a “sick” workout is essential. When I do go overboard, I’m usually stuck with a horrible chronic cough for the next 3 weeks. I don’t wish it on anyone!

Lastly, I cannot agree with you more about germ spreaders in fitness areas. Common courtesy people!

Robert August 22, 2011 at 12:04 am

I think it really comes down to knowing your own body. If exercising when your sick doesn’t feel right or you don’t like it, then don’t do it. You don’t want to force something on your body that doesn’t feel comfortable, or isn’t right for you. No doubt exercise can help build the immune system to keep one form getting sick, but actually helping recover faster, I’m not sure. I’ve worked out when I was sick and not sick. But now that I’m getting older I tend to wait to until I get better before I workout.

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