Two weeks ago I was faced with a conundrum. I woke up the morning before marathon day with a stinking cold. I did not feel remotely like running. In fact I wanted to curl up and die. As the day wore on my cold got worse and I considered dropping out. But then I decided to run anyway.
Why? Because I have faced this problem in the past, with surprising results. Four years ago, against my better judgment, I ran a half marathon with a horrible cold and still managed to achieve a PB. That race is still my fastest half marathon to date. I confess I don’t recall anything about the race. All I remember is approaching the start line convinced I was going to die and then running across the finish line one hour and 59 minutes later feeling like a superhero. The snot, pain and prolonged recovery have all faded with time and I have no regrets about starting it.
Two Sundays ago I applied this twisted logic once again and ran a marathon with a head cold. Sadly I didn’t get a PB; in fact I felt absolutely dreadful for a large percentage of the day! But I still managed to finish the race, albeit slowly. I actually attempted to drop out at the halfway point, until a kind medic advised me that finishing the race was quicker than waiting for the sweeper bus.
Hoping I could beat the cold and still run when I felt below par backfired. But despite a rather rough marathon day, a personal worst finishing time and extending my cold for at least a week, I do have the post-race smug glow that only a shiny new medal provides.
Long distance runners invest a lot of time and effort into our favourite sport. If we've trained for months, paid for race entry and travelled to participate in a race, dropping out can be a huge blow. But if participating risks your health (and your PB dreams) it might not be worth putting yourself through it. If you’re feeling less than fantastic in the lead up to a race, when is it OK to risk it and when should you hang up your trainers and admit defeat?
I put the question to Twitter and my running friends were divided on the subject.
'It depends on the severity of the illness. Sometimes you feel fine once you start and you would have regretted not giving it a go!' says @thisistc.
'If you start a race remember the impact you have on race organisers and volunteers too,' says @ledavies.
Dr Jenna Burton from Pall Mall Medical is on the fence. 'When you are full of the common cold (acute rhinitis) it is not as straightforward as a simple yes, no answer to whether you should take a break from your training schedule,' she says. 'In one sense, the endorphin rush associated with exercise can help gear up your immune system and make you feel more alive and alert. Plus activating deep breathing during cardiovascular exercise can help free the lungs of infected mucus, reducing the risk of a secondary chest infection; a much more serious pathology of the respiratory tract.'
The concern is, you may think you're fit to run, but exercising can damage your health. 'More commonly, the endorphin rush hits, leaving a sense of euphoria that one feels better for having exercised,' Dr Burton added. 'However, the immune system is distracted from fighting illness and energy used during exertion is diverted from focusing on treating infection. The initial high, may result in a resounding low.'
Although it is tempting to attempt to ‘get through’ the race at all odds, if you're really unwell it is not worth putting your health at severe risk. 'Be realistic,' says Dr Burton. 'If you have diarrhoea, vomiting or a fever, do not compete. These will cause the body to lose significant amounts of water and salts, placing you at risk of heart arrhythmias (unusual heart rhythms) and collapse. Likewise, if you feel too unwell to race, you likely are. Seek a medical expert for a second opinion if you have concerns.'
Greg Whyte OBE, physical activity expert and Fitbit ambassador, is firmly in camp DNS. 'There is very little to be gained from a DNF both physiologically or psychologically,' he says. 'In contrast, a DNS brings control of your destiny back into your hands. It can be difficult to withdraw from a race on the day but it may provide the optimal strategy for your physical and mental health.'
Whyte recommends factoring poor health into your race strategy. 'The key is to plan ahead,' he says. 'You should have an 'If-Then' plan in which 'If' you wake up on the morning of a race feeling under the weather, 'Then' you will withdraw from the race and structure a return to run plan based on your symptoms and recovery. Taking this approach avoids the damage associated with a poor race or a DNF, and speeds your recovery to race another day.'
Two weeks after race day I can confirm that running a marathon with a cold wasn't my brightest idea and I probably should have gone for a DNS. But my half marathon PB still remains and I have no regrets about running that race.
What should you if you wake up on race day feeling less than 100 per cent and you're not sure if it's pre-race paranoia or ill health? We ask Dr Jenna Burton for her top four tips for powering on through.
Feed the cold, starve the fever; yes the age old saying stands true here. Provide your body the night and morning before the race with vital nutrients to assist with your immune system. Give it complex carbohydrates the evening before - wholewheat bread or potatoes, along with vitamin-packed vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. Sleep well for at least eight hours. The morning of the race, take simple sugars, such as those found in starchy fruits like bananas and berries. These will not cure your illness, but they should give you the very best chance to eliminate as much of the infection as possible, in order to attend the race.
Appreciating that this is ‘race’ day and you are likely looking for a PB, start off slow. Being at less than 100 per cent full health and exerting yourself physically is a strain and shock to the body. Allow it to warm up slowly. On starting you will gauge a) whether it is going to be possible to continue and b) when the endorphins start to hit, whether it will spur you on enough to the end. Listen to your body: it is your vehicle for finishing the race.
Hydrate. Even without a temperature, your body will be more active than usual. This needs water to keep it cool and hence managing your temperature, plus providing a medium for the necessary chemical reactions to take place. Hydrate with plenty of water and iso salts, as found in many sports drinks.
After the race, take a much needed rest. Do not expect your body to perform at its usual level. Go home and save the celebrations until later.
Do you have a DNF/DNS story to share? Tweet us @RunnersWorldUK using the hashtag #DNSorDNF.