Running It Out: can you avoid sickness by running?

It is usually said with the tongue firmly pressed against the cheek, but I believe there’s perhaps more validity in the concept of staving off sickness by “Running it out” than most people credit. In fact – touch wood – I am on an extended run of good health that proves out this theory a number of times over. Aside from a stress-related incidence involving an ulcer, I have dodged any sustained illness pretty solidly for about 12 months now (about as long as I’ve been running seriously). That’s despite living cheek-by-jowl with my three children who are sick alarmingly often, and my wife who doesn’t fair much better.

Now, it is of course true that kids get sick more often than adults, as they progressively build immunities we grown-ups already have. It’s also true that a woman’s immunity is unlikely to be great when she’s got an x-month old baby and is running around after two other small kids, hence less able to take good care of herself (let alone stay reasonably sane). But that said, the various communicable illnesses they all pick up are easily shared, and many a colleague/friend of mine in similar circumstances is frequently observed to fall foul of this.

I have been close. Real close. So close in fact that you’d argue I was already there – the symptoms manifesting themselves in their early stages, sometimes acutely. But it is at just those times – as I’ve sat disconsolately in my lounge room of an evening, contemplating work the next day and the intended training schedule I had planned and despairing at impending illness derailing me – it is at those times that I have always been better off by erring on the side of action versus inaction.

I have been in that situation when the planned run the next day was 30kms or 35kms on the way to work; requiring a 4.30am or 5am start; in the middle of winter; with a bad forecast. The prospect of going ahead with that when you’re feeling the ‘razorblades’ deep in your throat, or you’re coughing up phlegm, can be pretty ominous. But the alternative has always seemed worse: getting up a little later to try and extend the rest; getting myself to the train station (where no doubt delays and cancellations will make me late); enduring the train ride in a confined environment with people sicker than me; dragging myself into work at the other end, my metabolism and demeanor dull and lifeless from the lack of a kick-start. Prolonged sickness lies that way.

Weighing up the risks and rewards, I’ve always somehow managed to convince myself that no amount of chilly wind and rain is going to be sufficiently detrimental to outweigh the benefits of fresh air, a raised heart rate, sweating out toxins and, perhaps most importantly, producing endorphins. This is where the amateur biologist dusts off his speculatometer and waxes unresearched on possible theorem to support a reality he has already observed: could it be that endorphins act against viruses and boost immunity? (Or could they just, in fact, be important to runners for maintaining health due to the runner’s addiction to them?)

At this point, someone with journalistic ambitions or indeed any degree of self-respect would at least perform a Google search on this topic. Given that I am sure I have read in the past at least one article about the benefits of exercise on cancer patients etc, you’d think I might try and dredge some of that up to reference here. But I won’t. Because it doesn’t matter. Scientific method means that one day a certain view may be taken and published that is then disproved the next day by new evidence of some related factor previously ignored. The truth is out there.

What’s more important than science here is faith. To expose yourself to some fairly serious elements in the cold and darkness of the early hours, when you’re already coming down with something nasty, requires you to believe in the benefits I outlined above (fresh air, sweating etc). Equally, it requires faith in the school of thought that debunks the myth of colds and flu being acquired through exposure to rain and cold. I am not one-hundred percent committed to this, as the effects of exposure over time are pretty clearly evidenced in most people’s experience, but I believe that so long as a body is exercising above a certain level – at least fast walking – the raised heart rate and robust core body temperature are going to counter the external factors of cold and wet (common sense caveat: this entire line of reasoning probably excludes extreme environments like sub-temperate zones or high altitude/alpine regions).

Perhaps it is the faith itself that combines with the physical effects of endorphins to result in a formidable weapon against sickness. If a person has convinced themselves that it’s a good idea to roll out of bed at 4.30am, with a headache and a sore throat, pull on a pair of thin running shorts, a rainshell and not much else, and run for three hours to get to the office, the battle against whatever virus or ague is beating at their door is arguably already half won.

When that same person finds themselves an hour later breathing well and running strong, envigorated by salty spray lashing them over the sea wall as the coming storm whips the ocean to a frenzy, the endorphins pumping through their body are not only chemically powerful in their own right, but are no doubt feeding back into and reinforcing the mindset that has already decided to reject the sickness. No, I haven’t walked myself round in a circle, like a blinkered horse, to a ‘power of the mind’ conclusion, as the physical is still the core element here. Without it, this phenomenon would not exist.

So, different courses for different horses yadayadayada, but from my own personal experience, if you were to ask me “Should I run?” in almost any situation of marginal health, you’d be rewarded with a resounding affirmative, a solid thwack on the back and a complimentary can of Harden The F___ Up into the bargain. This could be why people don’t generally ask for my advice on such things.

A note on the title: I’ve referred to road runs in my examples, but of course my argument is twice as strong if you’re hitting the trails. I’ve come back from the brink of illness by forcing myself to set the early Sunday alarm, which pays off a million times when the brisk mountain air works its magic.

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