What to Do When Winter Training Collides With Cold & Flu Season

Dr. Kevin Sherman
January 27, 2017
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Here we are once again in the throes of winter training. It’s the time when over-trained, exhausted athletes with the sniffles and sneezes start pouring through my doors asking, “Can I still train with a cold?” The simple answer: Maybe.

Unfortunately, endurance athletes may be more prone to upper respiratory infections, particularly when the immune system becomes depressed. In a 2010 study published by the Journal of Applied Physiology, endurance cyclists and triathletes had “substantially lower white blood cell counts than their peers.

Endurance athletes may be more prone to upper respiratory infections in the winter season.

We need those white blood cells to help us fight off infections.  Lower numbers of immune cells found in endurance athletes may actually be a normal adaptive response to exercise, but the lower their numbers, the more likely we are to get sick. If you feel like a “little something” might be coming on, consider the following:

Symptoms Above the Neck

It may be OK to exercise if your symptoms are above the neck, such as:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Mildly scratchy throat
  • Sneezing

Symptoms Below the Neck 

Do not exercise if your symptoms are below the neck, such as:

  • Coughing
  • Anything “in the chest”
  • Nausea
  • Body aches.

Do not exercise if you have a fever or fatigue.

If you do choose to exercise with a cold:

  • Reduce the duration and intensity of your workout.
  • Stay out of heart rate Zone 3 and above.
  • Limit your workout to 30 minutes or less.

How to Reduce Your Risk

The best way to deal with a cold or the flu, of course, is to not catch it in the first place.

  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, mouth or face.
  • Stay away from sick people.
  • Do not sacrifice sleep for training.
winter training

Vitamin C has been shown to decrease the risk of catching a cold.

What About Vitamin C?

Good news! Vitamin C has been shown to decrease the risk of catching a cold, at least according to Finnish researchers, but only in people who exercise regularly at high intensity. I’m guessing, if you are reading this, you probably fall into that category. 

Vitamin D also helps to regulate the immune system but should not be taken without the official nod of your physician. It might be worth getting tested to see if you are deficient in vitamin D, especially if you live in a northern climate and get little sun exposure.

Remember, all of the long-term adaptations our bodies make in response to exercise take place during rest. When in doubt, stay home and relax. Let your body build and rebuild. Is one more long run really going to make you any faster on race day?

Disclaimer: Always consult with your physician, if you plan to exercise with any illness.


1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Nov;110(5):925-32. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1573-9. Epub 2010 Jul 17. Lower white blood cell counts in elite athletes training for highly aerobic sports. Horn PL1, Pyne DB, Hopkins WG, Barnes CJ.

2. Harri Hemilä1, Elizabeth Chalker, Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Review, 31 JAN 2013 DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4

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  1. Pingback: Germ Warfare: Don't Let Cold and Flu Season Drag You Down

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