Too cold, too wet, too sick... there seems to be no shortage of excuses for runners who don’t quite feel up to hitting the road today. And Dr. Thomas Wessinghage has heard them all. He’s won 22 German running titles, was the 1982 European champion in the 5,000 meters, and today still holds the German record in the 1,500- and 2,000-meter races. As chief physician and medical director of several clinics near the Tegernsee lake in Bavaria, the former elite athlete can also look at things from a medical point of view. Wessinghage told GripWorld which runners’ excuses contain a grain of truth – and which are just cop-outs.
The most important piece of advice a doctor can give a runner is a fairly simple rule of thumb – if you’re running a fever, you definitely shouldn’t go running. Otherwise you don’t really have to give up your run if you’re feeling a bit under the weather. But you also shouldn’t push yourself to your limits or beyond. Moderate exercise can activate your immune system. Intensive activity, on the other hand, doesn’t boost your body’s defenses, but weakens them instead. Marathon runners, for example, need several weeks for their immune systems to return to normal. After an illness with fever, it’s usually best to take a one-week break from running. Top athletes – or all athletes, really – can be somewhat neurotic when it comes to their training schedules, however. If they aren’t able to work out for three days, they have the feeling that they’re going to lose all the progress they’ve made. To put it bluntly, that’s just ridiculous. In the long term, a one-week break will not harm your performance. Quite the opposite, in fact – your illness will linger much longer if you start exercising again too soon. And if you have a fever, in the worst case there is a danger of the heart muscles becoming inflamed, a condition that can even be fatal.
Here in central Europe, snow and cold are really no reason not to go running. To give your immune system a boost, there’s almost nothing better than exercising (at an appropriate pace) out in the snow. But after your run, you shouldn’t stay out in the cold in your damp, sweaty clothes to do your stretching. This actually will increase your risk of getting sick. So I recommend changing into dry things immediately and finishing your stretching routine in the comfort of your warm home. It’s often said if you go for a long run in sub-zero temperatures, fluids could freeze in your bronchial tubes, leading to chronic irritation of the respiratory tract and a variety of other symptoms. This danger only exists in regions that see long-lasting double-digit sub-zero temperatures, like northern Canada or Siberia. At the average winter temperatures of central Europe, there is no risk of this happening.
Yep, the good old muscle ache – the body may be sensitive, but it’s not very refined in talking to us. When it needs to pass on some bad news, pain is its only means of communication. Ignoring such messages is a bad idea. The standard sports advice of “walking it off” is not supported by the medical evidence. Extremely sore muscles are sign that we have pushed ourselves well beyond the limit of what our bodies can take. Although the pain comes from microscopic injuries, they still need a chance to heal. If your muscles are stiff and sore, I recommend taking things slowly. Walk for 15 to 30 minutes on the first day, intersperse your walk with 10-minute intervals of jogging on the second day, and work up to maybe a 30-minute run by the end of the week.
Even when you’re in the midst of your annual bout with hay fever, you don’t have to give up all physical activities. But if you are feeling weak and tired because of your allergies, it’s better to dial down the intensity of your workouts. Be careful with your medications, especially if you find yourself needing more medicine to get through your run than you would take in normal everyday situations. Instead of upping your dosage and risking possible side effects, you should adapt your training program to your current state of health. The most important rule is to try to steer clear of allergens. Don’t run in high-pollen areas. And here’s a pointer for hay-fever victims who like to jog along the coast: If you can, choose a stretch of coast where the prevailing winds come in off the sea, because that way the air will likely be (almost) pollen-free.
The frequency of your heartbeat depends on a number of different factors, such as age, sex, and lifestyle. For example, a young, slender woman who has just started running will have a higher pulse. This is normal and not at all dangerous – smaller hearts in slimmer bodies simply beat faster than larger hearts. A high pulse is no reason to limit your exercise. In fact, after a while your heart rate won’t go up as quickly because your cardiovascular system and metabolism will have gotten used to the exercise. That said, I recommend that all beginners see their doctors for a physical exam before they start a regular exercise program. Individuals who have a particularly low pulse due to a heart problem should always ask their physician whether endurance training is right for them.
In most cases, exercise is a good way of fighting high blood pressure. However, there are some exceptions. Individuals being treated for high blood pressure with a top blood pressure number between 180 and 200 should not go running. Instead, they first should seek treatment from a specialist. If your blood pressure is only slightly elevated, you can usually lower it significantly by making changes in your lifestyle – such as low-intensity exercise. Physical activity and weight loss can help you lower your systolic blood pressure (top number) by ten and your diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) by around five units. In many cases, medication is then no longer necessary.
When you run, you breathe more heavily. If your running route is alongside a high-traffic road, you’ll automatically inhale vehicle exhaust, which means more pollutants and particulates enter your lungs. This is not the point of exercising! You really should steer clear of busy streets during rush hour. If possible, it’s better to run a different route or at a different time of day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run at all. There is always a park or a quieter neighborhood nearby. Or at least postpone your run until after evening rush hour.
It doesn’t make much sense to eat and run. You should wait at least 1.5 to 2 hours after a meal to go running, and some people need significantly more time to digest their food. When in doubt, you can always cut down the amount you eat. If you like to run in the afternoon, it’s probably better to keep your lunch small and eat more in the evening instead.
A night on the town doesn’t have to stop you from running the next day. But it is a reason to go gently and listen to your body. Doing something to get your blood moving again, boost your sense of well-being, and chase away your headache in the fresh air is usually a good strategy. But anyone who believes they have to push themselves through a run following a boozy evening probably has a bigger problem than “just” a hangover.
You don’t have to completely skip your run just because you don’t have the perfect shoes along. It’s easy to adapt the type and intensity of your workout to the gear at hand. If I just have regular sneakers, for example, then I run less than I would in my favorite running shoes, take more breaks, and add in some stretching and other exercises. In other words, a more relaxed mindset regarding training schedules and goals can be good for many running fanatics. Very good, even!