Under the Weather: Commuting with a Cold

We all know that bike commuters are less likely than non-cyclists to get sick.  But what happens when a cyclist does catch a cold: garage the bike or keep on keeping on?

I encountered this situation today and decided to ride to work.  I have a cold – sore throat, sneezing, a little weak – but did not feel bad enough to take a sick day.  The weather was sunny and relatively warm, so I rode my bike without much thought.  I took it easy, blew my nose at stop lights, and felt pretty good during the ride.  I drooped considerably once I got to my office, and felt more feverish, with a raw throat and less energy.  A cup of hot tea helped and soon I felt just normal sick.  Same with the ride home.

I wonder – what is the healthier course of action?  Riding my bike always makes me feel better in the long run and taking the L train while sick is miserable.  But does riding exacerbate the sickness and slow healing time?  I don’t know.

I like the advice from Commute by Bike: “If I’m too sick to ride, I’m too sick to work.” 

But what about the gray area, where you know you’re not too sick to work, but sick nevertheless?  What has your experience been?

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27 thoughts on “Under the Weather: Commuting with a Cold

  1. Scott says:

    I live a substantial walk from the train. It’s easier for me to ride in most cases. Not when I had swine flu last spring, though! (Although I did make one brief weak Oma ride to Walgreens to get Tamiflu when my local pharmacy closed early!)

  2. I think if you have a fever, you shouldn’t ride. All your available energy should go to fighting that infection. But with anything else, a relaxed commute couldn’t hurt!

    There was an article in Runners World recently about when you should run and when you should skip it when you’re feeling tired and/or sick. I think it applies here too, but sorry – I can’t find a link to it.

  3. i really like the idea that if you’re too sick to ride, you’re too sick to work, but sometimes sickness just means really low energy and if you can conserve energy, then it makes work easier.
    on the other hand, taking public transport when you’re sick and being crammed into a small place with lots of other people just might be more unpleasant than being in the fresh air and having to bike yourself somewhere.
    either way, i really hope you feel better soon!!

  4. Vee says:

    I had a different experience last month. It was a chilly but not overly cold day but I was coming down with a cold. I decided to ride and the wind blasting I got on my face and neck were enough to push me over the edge to a full blown cold.

    After that I did not ride b/c of low energy and the bchilled to the bone feeling I was having. I wasn’t too sick to “work” b/c as a SAHM you can’t call in ever. But I did decide to take that week pretty slow. Later on our getaway weekend with a hacking cough and warm weather I did ride. By night time I was a hot mess, but that would have happened no matter what.

  5. Cherilyn says:

    I’m with Vee–a lot depends on the weather and especially how cold the wind is. I biked the other day when I was sick and ended up feeling a LOT better afterward, but it was such a lovely day. And maybe getting a “new”bike had something to do with it.


  6. Dave says:

    Yup, I agree: If you’re too sick to ride, then you’re too sick to work. That has always worked for me and helped to keep me honest.

    Its the gray area of not feeling well, but not knowing if you are getting worse where it’s harder to know, but if I don’t feel well, I just take my ride really easy and go as slow as need be to get home.

    Also, I don’t think cold actually gives us colds. It just feels crummy when you’ve got the chills and are feeling low.

  7. Jon Grinder says:

    I use the “collarbone rule” : If the problem is above the collarbone (head cold, etc), ride on. If it’s below the collarbone, stay home.

    I’ve not missed a commute on my bike in almost 3 years, but I have missed a few days of work. Basically, if I can’t ride I certainly don’t feel like working!

  8. Dave says:

    I agree with the others who have said if you’re too sick to ride, you’re too sick to work – I think we tend to push ourselves too much, and often end up prolonging our sickness because we don’t take time to rest and recuperate.

    That being said, if I’m just feeling overly tired, or on the verge of being sick, I have ridden and just taken it especially easy (I don’t ride aggressively anyway), and it’s been just fine. The fresh air usually feels nice for me, as opposed to the often stuffy bus, and riding can be just as casual and calm as walking if you intentionally just take it easy.

    I can see weather potentially making an impact, though if I was already questionable about going to work, heavy rain might just tip the balance :)

  9. I can relate to this, as I’ve had pneumonia for the past month that keeps getting better and worse and better and worse. For the last 2 weeks the pneumonia has been subsiding and I have been cycling to work. As long as I wear a scarf to protect my throat from the wind, cycling does not make me feel worse, as far as I can tell. But it does make my nose run like crazy, so I have learned to always have my pockets stuffed full of tissues.

  10. Scott says:

    The weather in Chicago this morning was beautiful; a perfect Spring day for cycling. I think being out in this rather than a train would make anyone feel better. Get well soon, Dottie!

  11. In Germany we tend to think fresh air is best for a cold so we sleep with the window open and other eccentric things. Personally I find ccling in the ‘inbetween’ phase of sickness wakes me up and clears my head better than any meds, although it does seem unbearably stuffy inside afterwards, and I spend the time waiting for the next opportunity to get on my bike again…

  12. alice says:

    Hmm yes this is an interesting question, I think also it is good if you are not on public transport as you are not spreading your germs to others.

  13. bongobike says:

    I think you need to listen to your body. If riding makes you feel worse, don’t do it. Pushing yourself too hard because of a “macho” attitude that tells you “you can beat this” is bad for you and your coworkers. I stopped working out in gyms because of all the people who go weightlifting while sick, because they don’t want to miss a day and then they don’t wipe the equipment. I got sick so many times that I gave it up.

  14. Scott says:


    Wo in Deutschland wohnst du? Ich sehe gern taeglich per Internet am Morgen NDR Fernsehen aus Hamburg. Die Landschaft im Fernseher von Norddeutschland sieht sehr schoen und gibt es immer wieder viele Fahrraeder. Dort, das Wetter ist nicht so kalt im Winter und im Sommer nicht so heiss (und noch nicht so windig) wie Chicago. Vielleicht eines Tages wuerde ich Deutschland besuchen und erlebe deutsche Fahrrad fahren!

  15. Doug says:

    I was going to write a comment of what I do, but Jon Grinder covered exactly how I handle it.

  16. lemony says:

    If I were certain/feel (rather ‘chancy’ though) that my condition would not get worse/exacerbate during the day, I would start off/ my journey 30 minutes earlier accompanied by a thermos of hot coffee. I would do a slower ride than usual and stop somewhere (seat in the park … by the side of a canal, river etc) and have a sip of coffee (once or twice – for duration of 5-10min)then continue on my journey.
    But if I’m uncertain that my condition would not get worse I would take medical leave or go about by public transport. (Avoid unnecessary risk.)


  17. Val says:

    Me, I always looked at it the other way: if I’m well enough to work, I’m well enough to ride. Works for me. Val

  18. I thought I was recovering from a cold a couple of weeks ago. I’d stopped coughing continually, so I figured I was better. The first day back of work, I was a bit groggy, but being on the bike seemed to help. The next morning, I felt weird and was struggling to breathe. I was taking photos so I didn’t notice too much. A couple of hours later I collapsed at work and was laid up all day feeling sick and dizzy and feverish. I was sent home in a taxi. The doctor diagnosed labyrinthitis and ordered me to stay at home, a few days later I developed acute tonsillitis. I’m still recovering and my bike is still at work. So much for feeling better! So I would agree with the guide “if you’re not fit to ride you’re not fit to work” seems extremely sensible.

  19. Melissa S. says:

    I know that with running, you keep running until you feel crappy below the neck. In other words, if you chest hurts or you feel achey, don’t run. I’d imagine it’d be the same for biking.

  20. bongobike says:

    Sheffield cycle chic wrote: “The doctor diagnosed labyrinthitis and ordered me to stay at home…”

    Labyrinthitis?!?! Is this caused by working in a labyrinth of cubicles?

  21. bongobike says:

    OK, so it’s an inner ear problem which can cause vertigo. Weird–never heard of it before.

  22. lemony says:

    Off-side! : Just an alert: If one has a touch of ‘flu’ , one should avoid strenuous excercise or activities for about 2weeks. I have come across young chaps who died of ‘cardiac arrest’ (3 cases known to me) owing to the above.

  23. lemony says:

    Apology for some garbled statement above in my post :p : “…owing to the above.” should read “owing to their participating in some strenuous excercise/ activity immediately on their recovery from a bout of ‘flu’.

  24. Dottie says:

    Excellent suggestions all around! I’ll remember that distinction between a head cold and a chest cold. I certainly would not want to make myself seriously sick. Luckily, I am feeling better today, though not yet 100%.

  25. Alex in DC says:

    I typically ride in if I feel well enough to work. But I do often find, when sick, that I am exhausted at the end of the day in a mussy, cotton-headed kind of a way and I worry my ability to pay attention to the rode may be impaired. Fortunately for me, I live and work near the metro so I can drag the bike home via train.
    I do believe that getting outdoors is good for most colds (of course there are exceptions) and I am much happier riding one way than not riding at all so it’s worth the hassle of getting the bike on and off the train.

  26. @bongobike

    My office is open plan – so i can’t blame it on work ;-)

    I would describe it as more like being seasick on land!

  27. Trachea says:

    @ bongobike
    Labyrinthitis — it’s funny I got this a couple years ago when riding my bike in a winter critical mass. I had no symptoms at all until I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t balance when I walked. I had vertigo for about 3 weeks, until I got a couple sessions of cranio-sacral massage. That cleared up the vertigo, thank God. Vertigo is truly horrible, I feel for anyone who has it.

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