Minimize the Symptoms of a Cold

Having a sore throat and runny nose? Are you in doubts whether or not having a cycling session? Here are some tips on how to relieve the symptoms of a cold and minimize their impact on your training routine.

Surely many of you are experiencing the terrible feeling of indecision around this time of year as the colder weather approaches. You may have been looking forward to going out on your bike but then you realize that the raw sensation you’ve been feeling at the back of your throat for the past few of hours hasn’t become any less uncomfortable and may be spreading into a head cold. This is when you have to decide: Is the cycle you’ve planned going to create enough positive endorphins to relieve the cold symptoms more effectively than any hot tea and lemon, or will the exercise wear you out and bring on a full-blown cold?

No person is immune from the common cold known as rhinopharyngitis, and the first thing you should do when weighing up your cycling options is determining whether the unpleasantness you’re experiencing is above or below the neck. If your symptoms only include a runny nose, tender throat or a sore head, and you believe that a packet of cough sweets in your back pocket will keep you functioning, then there should be nothing wrong to go out on your bike. A training session probably won’t make you feel any worse and should give you a greater psychological boost than resting on a sofa. People sometimes feel they can chase away the cold symptoms before they get too entrenched within their system, although there’s no medical substantiation to back this up.

woman having a runny nose
If your symptoms only include a runny nose, sore throat or a headache, then there should be nothing wrong to go out on your bike.


However, there’s evidence to suggest working out with the common cold is harmless. A study carried out at Ball State University, Indiana, nearly 20 years ago, infected 50 moderately healthy 18 to 29-year-old volunteers with the rhinovirus, the most common cause of the cold, and then divided them into two groups. One group of 34 worked out for 40 minutes on alternate days at 70% of their heart rate while the other group of 16 did nothing. Every 12 hours the volunteers recorded their activities and symptoms, and had the tissues they had used weighed to calculate the severity of their symptoms.

While the group that exercised didn’t harm themselves in any way at the end of the ten days, the duration and intensity of their illness was the same as the group who only relaxed.

However, it should be noted that decongestants may speed up your heart rate. Together with the intensity of your pedaling, this may cause difficulty breathing; so cold-carrying cyclists should avoid interval training sessions if they’re taking over-the-counter medication to unblock their nose. And even if you aren’t taking it, it may be wise to reduce the intensity of your cycling over the week or so duration of the virus. So, forget the bike computer at home for a week and don’t try to chase down every rider you see in the distance.

On the other hand, if your cold has gone below the neck and alighted on your chest, you’re coughing up phlegm and you feel nauseous and tired, then riding is absolutely not a good idea. You won’t only have a terrible ride, but you’ll also be tiring your body out instead of allowing it fight the virus.

big city
If you have a cold, avoid cycling in polluted areas.

An expert on influenza from the School of Life, Sport and Social Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University says that you would really struggle to ride if you had the influenza virus. Even with the less severe cold virus, it’s recommended to leave the bike at home and to take public transport to work if your morning commute takes you through heavy traffic in a built-up area. It’s been discovered that tiny air pollution particles are quite damaging to your lungs by themselves. But if you have a cold and ride in a polluted area, then those air pollution particles can actually worsen the inflammation that the cold causes in your lungs a lot.

What is more, if you are cycling in an area full of cars in the town center, or even on a busy street, vehicle emissions are producing a lot of air pollution particles and you’re likely to be exposed to heavier pollution. One of the biggest producers of air pollution particles is diesel exhaust, therefore experts suggest if you have a cold, avoid cycling in polluted areas. If it’s possible, cycle through a park or out into the countryside to avoid aggravating your cold.

family cycling
Regular exercise boosts your immune system and helps you to avoid catching a cold.

But the good news is if you’ve been going out cycling regularly, you’re improving your immune system and reducing your risk of catching a cold in the first place. A survey of 700 recreational runners discovered that 6 out of 10 reported fewer colds since working out regularly, while only 4% reported more. This anecdotal evidence is supported by a 2010 study from the US where a group of more than 1,000 adults were followed over 3-month period during autumn and winter. The adults who did aerobic exercise over the period had a 43% reduction of days suffering from a cold in comparison to those who were mainly sedentary. The study also discovered that the intensity of workout actually reduced the severity of the cold symptoms experienced. What is more, other research has discovered that even moderate workout can boost the immune system, which although will return to the pre-workout level shortly after the activity is over, will improve the long-term ability to combat the cold virus.

woman having sore throat
If the core body temperature inside the nose falls by 5°, the immune system doesn’t work as well to fight the virus.

Surely, many of you when growing up were told by your mums to wrap up warm before going out in the winter and weren’t allowed to leave the house with wet hair, all only to prevent a cold. Even nowadays, many people still connect the noun describing the illness with the adjective describing the temperature.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine’s fact sheets, cold, damp or drafty weather doesn’t increase the risk of getting a cold. According to the majority of cold researchers, cold or bad weather just brings more people together indoors, which results in more person-to-person contact. In reality, if you decide to cycle on a cold and wet day, you’re less likely to catch the cold than if you take a bus, packed with germ-carrying humans.

Nevertheless, if you do experience the symptoms of a cold developing, take off your wet cycling gear as soon as possible after returning home from a ride and warm yourself up with a shower because cold germs multiply in a warm, damp environment. Experts explain it’s all a matter of association, with the uncomfortable shivery feeling of having a low body temperature and the illness we more often than not catch as the thermometer drops.

Bundling up will keep you warm and cozy, but it wouldn’t prevent you from catching the cold, unless you are covering your face with a full mask. However, the type of cold virus that lives in our nose is most effective when exposed to cold weather. People perceive themselves to be sicker in colder temperatures and the rhinovirus survives better in lower temperatures. This would all contribute to the perception that we are more likely to catch the cold as we respond to the organism that makes you sick, which spreads a bit easier when it’s colder. And because this virus likes the cold, if you’ve already caught the bug, a study from Yale University proposes keeping warm will help fight that organism.

Another study suggests that covering our nasal passageways doesn’t reduce our chances of catching the cold but it may help us to fight it. The rhinovirus causes 80% of colds in the autumn, and one out of five people carry it in the nose at any time. If the core body temperature inside the nose falls by 5°, the immune system doesn’t work as well to fight the virus, but if we keep our noses warm, then this will help our body take on the virus. So, while wearing a scarf, mask or balaclava when you are cycling may not fit in with a hipster cycling image, it could be the difference between staying at home and going out riding.

many people on the road
The main cause of catching the cold is other people.

To be totally “bulletproof” from experiencing the rasping throat, blocked nose, and general nastiness of the common cold, then you’ll need to lengthen your time on the bike to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, quarantined from the human race, because the main cause of infection is other people.

A study of the cold virus in offices discovered that 47% of desktops, 46% of computer mice and 45% of telephones had cold viruses on them. Because it’s spread between people, it’s not much of a recommendation to avoid human contact — although there would be much lesser chance for you to catch it if you stay out on your bike than sitting in an office!

We often associate vitamin C to treating a cold but instead of reaching for the orange juice, northern Europeans might be better off consuming some oily fish. Latest studies link a low level of vitamin D in the blood with more respiratory illnesses. In winter months, this vitamin is in short supply because the major source is sunlight and this has been given as a reason as to why there are more colds at this time of year. Some people in the northern hemisphere have reduced vitamin D concentration so you may want to take vitamin D supplement.

Another thing that can increase the chance of catching a cold is your level of psychological stress. The trigger that affects a person’s vulnerability to illness seems to be the immune system’s sensitivity to cortisol, which can be weakened by chronic stress, letting the inflammation that causes the symptoms to run wild. But as every regular rider knows, the best way to relieve stress is to escape the pressures of work or relationships and go out on your bike for a couple of hours to create some “brain space.”

Last but not least, getting enough sleep is crucial for keeping your immune system healthy, especially against the common cold. A study from 2009 discovered that participants were almost three times more likely to catch the cold if they slept less than seven hours a night in comparison to those who had eight or more.

washing hands with soap
Washing your hands frequently at this time of year is the most practical way to avoid the cold or flu virus.
  • There’s not much you can do if you are the average person who works in a busy environment, such as an office. It’s fairly difficult to stop yourself being exposed to the virus, what you can do is to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
  • Help keep your immune system top-notch with a healthy, varied diet.
  • Washing your hands frequently at this time of year is the most practical strategy to avoid the cold or flu virus, which can stay on surfaces such as door handles and table for a number of hours waiting to be spread to the next person via hands.
  • Hydration is vital in having a strong immune system; dehydration can cause numerous problems in your body.
  • Keeping well hydrated has much broader meaning than just avoiding thirst. Hydration will help keep your respiratory system moist and loosen any mucus in your nose, helping to keep your airways clear.

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Written by Stephan Blake

Stephan Blake is a cycling enthusiast and rides hundreds of miles every season. On rainy and cold days, he does weight training and high-intensity training to support his cycling performance.


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