We’ve had a fair amount of discussion here at the blog about long-term health, chronic heart conditions, and how exercise may or not be safe. We haven’t talked much, though, about acute general medical conditions, such as simply being “sick.”
Should you race when you’re sick? And, if you do….what might the consequences be?
I had a recent conversation with Chad Asplund, MD, the medical director for one of the Ironman 70.3 races, and Jon Drezner, MD, team physician for the Seattle Seahawks and an editor for the British Journal of Sports Medicine. We were talking about making a list of the concrete steps that triathletes could take to avoid serious medical problems on race day. Dr. Drezner drew my attention to a scientific report from last year that addressed this issue in long-distance running.
Let’s take a look at the study.
The team of investigators, from Cape Town, South Africa, is involved in the race-related medical care for a collection of on- and off-road running events ranging from “fun runs” to the 56-km Two Oceans Marathon, involving more than 25,000 runners each year. Over the past several years, this group has focused on studying this athlete population with an eye toward identifying, introducing, and testing interventions that might decrease the risk of race-day medical complications in participating runners. Collectively, their work has become known as the SAFER (Strategies to reduce Adverse medical events for the ExerciseR) studies. I’ve previously written here at the blog about the SAFER I study that looked at the “medical toll” of running races.
In the SAFER IV study, the investigators studied the impact of pre-race acute medical illness and do not start (DNS) and do not finish (DNF) rates for runners who competed one year in the 10-km or 22-km trail runs or the 21.1-km or 56-km Two Oceans events (1).
In the 3-5 days before each race, participants were offered the opportunity to complete an online questionnaire about any acute medical symptoms or illnesses that were present pre-race. The questionnaire included both systemic symptoms (headache, general muscle pains, cough, general joint pains, fever) and non-systemic symptoms (sore throat, runny nose, general tiredness, blocked nose, diarrhea, sore ears, abdominal pain, nausea, wheezing, bladder infection, skin rash, vomiting).
Among the participants, 7,031 runners completed the questionnaire. Any runners who reported symptoms received by email some educational material that suggested they not return to running until all symptoms were gone and they felt well again.
A total of 19% of respondents reported at least one symptom during the pre-race period; this included 7.5% who reported systemic symptoms. The remaining 81% reported no symptoms (the control group).
In the control group, the DNS rate was 6.6%. In the symptomatic group, the DNS rate was 11.0%. Interestingly, despite the availability of the educational information for the symptomatic group (that recommended not exercising until runners felt well), 89% of those athletes started the race. For those runners who reported any systemic symptoms, the DNS rate was 15.1%.
In the control group, the DNF rate was 1.3%. In the symptomatic group who started the race, the DNF rate was 2.1% (1.6 times greater than control). For those runners who reported any systemic symptoms and who started the race, the DNF rate was 2.4% (1.9 times greater than control).
The investigators concluded: 1) symptoms of acute illness were relatively common during the pre-race period; 2) despite such symptoms and despite educational materials that discouraged participation, most athletes chose to start the race; and 3) pre-race symptoms of acute illness significantly increased the chances for a DNF.
My Take on The Study
This study is intriguing because it is the only prospective study to address the impact of pre-race acute illness on race-related performance, in any sport. First, a couple notes about the study’s limitations are in order.
First, the response rate for the pre-race survey was rather low (26.6%). The authors indicate that the respondents did not differ substantially from non-respondents in terms of demographic data, but whenever a survey response rate is low, there is a possibility of unwanted bias.
Second, no information is available on the reasons for any athlete’s DNF. Clearly, it would be more informative if pre-race symptoms could be correlated with specific race-day medical problems that might cause the athlete to DNF.
In spite of those limitations, the investigators make some important observations in their running population, but these observations can probably be generalized to other athlete populations:
- Nearly 1 in 5 athletes were “sick” in the days leading up to their race. This is a lot of participants.
- The vast majority of “sick” athletes probably ignored warnings about participating until they were well (although certainly some may have felt better by race day).
- Pre-race “sickness” with systemic symptoms was associated with a nearly doubled risk of DNF. That’s a big effect on performance, even if finer distinctions such as finishing times could not be discerned.
Thinking about the implications, athletes and their physicians should be aware of the potential negative consequences of racing when “sick.” Race organizers should consider distributing educational information about these negative consequences, while recognizing that athletes may not accept unwanted advice not to participate. Many factors (investment in training, scheduled time off from work, costs associated with the race/travel) may be barriers in athletes’ acceptance of such advice. Lastly, additional studies would be helpful if they examined: 1) race-day medical conditions and their relationship with pre-race symptoms; and 2) other measures of performance such as actual versus expected finishing times.
Van Tonder A, Schwellnus M, Swanevelder S, Jordaan E, Derman W, Janse van Rensburg DC. A prospective cohort study of 7031 distance runners shows that 1 in 13 report systemic symptoms of acute illness in the 8-12 day period before a race, increasing their risk of not finishing the race 1.9 times for those runners who started the race: SAFER study IV. Br J Sports Med 2016; 50:939-945.