Dear Dumb Runner,
I'm seven weeks from my marathon and battling a cold that's trying to progress from runny nose and cough to deep chest-based hacking cough, fever, and full-on crappiness. (My doctor says it's an upper respiratory illness that has to run its course.) Various running sites tell me I should take time off if my cold includes "below the neck" symptoms. Since I'm now getting into the critical last few weeks of serious training before the marathon, my questions are: What does "below the neck" really mean in the grand scheme of things? Should I follow the advice on these sites or just shout "fake news" and continue training? And if I do take time off, what combination of cold medications is most likely to help me regain my fitness and post a BQ marathon time and possible PR?—Wheezy Willy, Shreveport, Louisiana
This is a tough one. For starters, it's impossible for me to know exactly how bad you're feeling—at rest and while running. Absent that, it's hard for me to advise you.
Likewise, only you truly know how much this race means to you; exactly how critical the next 2 or 3 weeks of training are for your goals, given your fitness level and your race goals; how willing you are to gamble with your health; etc.
I do feel your pain. I've been in this very situation, more than once, and it sucks. (By the way: While I'm not training for anything at the moment, I think that you and I might have the same illness.)
Runners in your shoes often refer, as you do, to the old "above-the-neck/below-the-neck" chestnut. It's an irresistibly catchy rule of thumb—I've certainly parroted it over the years—but practically speaking is just not that helpful. (I don't know about you, but when I get sick my own symptoms tend to come, go, morph, and migrate. A binary "above or below?" framework, for me, is useless.)
All that said... Given what you've told me here, what should you do? I vote for rest.
This means real rest. Take four or five days off from running—I know, it will be hard—and use that time to focus on extra sleep, chicken soup, and positive vibes. Take care of your health like it's your job. Then ease back into training.
The way I see it, one or two weeks of runs at 100% > three or four weeks of runs at 60%. Especially if those three or four weeks at 60% prevent you from getting back to 100%.
Whatever ultimately happens, prepare yourself for the possibility that this might not be your race. Have a Plan B for that—e.g., if you realize a few miles in that your sickness really did sink your chances of a fast finish, pull back and go super-easy... then think about targeting another marathon, two months or so away, for that BQ or PR. You'll have an excellent base for it.
Oh, and as for medications: I'm going to defer to your doctor on that. Advising readers on meds—even over-the-counter ones—is outside my comfort zone.
I hope this helps. Good luck... and feel better!