Why do I get sick after a race?

April fool's 4 miler

Ever get sick after a race?

Many runners feel that they are more likely to get sick in the days right after a race. Not after every race, but often.

A lot of runners also tend to get sick in the days and weeks right before a race. As we all know, sickness isn’t caused by the weather or fatigue: Illness is caused by germs. The fatigue and stress from increased training, increased exposure to the elements and sleep loss can compromise your immune system.

My Observations

While I went through my pre-race routine at the 2012 BAA Half Marathon, I kept thinking about what we runners do at races that expose us to so many germs? As I walked around and did my pre-race routine I began to notice things.

I noticed that no one was coughing or had a major case of the sniffles; everyone looked healthy. It was about 50 degrees and we were all standing around in light clothing waiting for the start. Normally just being in the cold would cause the sniffles. I didn’t do a scientific study, but I didn’t see anyone who looked sick.

So I started to think about those times or parts of the race when runners come into contact with each other, either directly or indirectly. While we are getting ready for the race and then standing in the corrals everyone can get quite close. At the start of a race it’s not unusual to be shoulder to shoulder and in everyone’s personal space. With this close proximity it is easy to transmit germs.

With this intimacy, we are all breathing each other’s air and you can see how easy it is to transmit germs. During a race, we are breathing deeply and releasing germs from deep inside our lungs. In the winter it is easy to see everyone’s breath and this intimacy is obvious.

Snot Blasting

During the race things eventually spread out and everyone gets some breathing room. One particularly disgusting and unhygienic act that I see at many races is snot blasting. That’s when someone plugs one nostril and lets it rip through the other in order to clear things out. While this might be an awesome way to clear your sinuses it is utterly disgusting.

When someone does this, do they know where this aerosolized snot is going to land? When I see people doing this they are often more focused on their nasty little task than they are on the people in the blast zone. I’ve never received a direct hit, but a few times I’m pretty sure I’ve been within the snot blast zone. Talk about spreading germs!

Dirty Hands

Runners are always wiping their noses when they run, especially on cold days. We then high-five each other, slap hands with by-standers and then reach into a tub or barrel full of ice and water to grab a drink. All of that “nose candy” and germs from hundreds of hands gets collected on our hands and redistributed on ourselves, our fellow runners and into those buckets of cold drinks.

It’s difficult to keep your hands clean even under normal circumstances. The medical profession tells us that hand washing is the best way to prevent the transmission of germs.

Most people don’t think about their hands and how they transmit germs. If you have germs on your hands and then eat food or rub your eye, you can infect yourself with something you picked up.

The Prize behind Door Number Three!

why do i get sick
Porta Potty by David Shankbone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before the race, runners are in and out of the porta-potties several times.  This provides another great opportunity to pick something up.  We all use the hand sanitizers (I hope) and many of us look like surgeons as we emerge from doing our business and try not to touch anything with our Purell laden hands.

If we get enough Purell and rub it in sufficiently we can be relatively germ free. But nothing is 100% and if you miss your finger tips and them rub your eyes or put something in your mouth you could be a microbe winner!

In the porta-potty you can get bacteria and viruses from both ends of the human body. You need to be especially careful in there. If you can hang up your bag or jacket instead of putting it on the floor, that is probably a good idea. All manner of fluids get spilled, sprayed and dropped on those floors.

Take a second to think about everyone else who is waiting to use the facility after you. Try to be reasonably hygienic. I walked into a porta-loo once and the person before me had pooped all over the seat. I’m not sure how you do that since most of us learned how to aim that shot when we were two-years old. I’m sure the person was embarrassed, but I had to change my plan. And try not to hurl. Also a very un-hygienic thing to do!

The most unhygienic thing that I have ever done happened in a porta-loo. Before leaving the porta-Turdis I rummaged through my running belt pouch for a final inventory check. Somehow one of my GUs popped out and landed on the floor. This was about 30 minutes before the race so the floor was well trafficked and teaming with wild life.

Without a thought I picked up the GU and stuffed it back into the pouch on my belt. I may have brushed it off on my shirt but somewhere during that race I stuck that packet in my mouth without a second thought.

I can only imagine what gets tracked into a porta-potty on hundreds or thousands of pairs of running shoes. Or what gets “spilled” on those floors. A few days after the race I reflected on that vacuous moment; I would not recommend anyone doing what I did. If you drop food on the floor of a porta-potty just chuck it. On race day I tend to get very focused. It’s all engines full speed ahead, dammed the torpedoes, viruses and bacteria! Sometimes focus is not a good thing.

I don’t mean to gross anyone out or to give you a complex. These things go on at races; I thought it would be good write about them. Some people never think about these things, but wonder why they get sick after a race.

At your next race be sure to take care in the porta-loo, wash your hands, especially your finger tips, well. You may want to tuck a small bottle of sanitizer or a sanitizing wipe in your race kit just in case the Purell runs out. If you are sick try not to sneeze, cough or snot blast on your fellow runners.

And remember, all surfaces have germs on them. Every hand you shake has germs on it. Germs are everywhere and you cannot avoid them completely. If you take reasonable precautions you should be able to run your race and be healthy afterwards.

Run well my friends.

©2013 – 2014 anagelin

Author: OmniRunner

9X Boston Marathon finisher, 17X marathons total. Sharing my love for running and the fun adventures and lessons that come with it. Helping non-profits increase fundraising and new runners celebrate their First 5K.

19 thoughts on “Why do I get sick after a race?”

  1. I hate porta potties… My least favorite part of the race scene. Snot rockets are a close second! This made me smile (and cringe a little).

    1. They can get a little nasty after a few hours. But, it’s all part of the experience. 😉 Thanks for the comment.

  2. I actually had the urge to thank someone ahead of me once who blew their nose into their own shirt rather than projectile blow their snot. Ugh.

    1. Maybe these people should tuck a paper towel into their belt or something. Not sure how I would react if I got a direct hit.

    1. Maybe there is something you can do differently? I see training and running races as a process. When I have a problem with part of the process I work on fixing it. Sometimes it takes a while to find a solution.
      I’m not Dr. so I don’t have any bright ideas of how to avoid getting sick during training. But being aware that you are likely to get sick you may think of something you could change.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. You are exactly correct when you mentioned a runner’s immune system being severely decreased after running longer events. Research refers to it as the “open window” of decreased immunity, and the most common illness post-race is an upper respiratory tract infection. After about 60 min or so of moderate intensity exercise, the great benefits of running start to become less as less apparent due to an imbalance in immunity and increased inflammation as a result.
    Loved reading this!

    1. Thank you. Your comment has some great additional information.
      This was an update of a post I wrote last October. People look at it all the time so I figured it needed a re-write.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  4. Snot blasting just makes me gag! I’m hoping I’ve had my fair share of snot and germs before my 10 k race in 3weeks. Last race I did I had a cold virus, then ended up in hospital 2 days later!

    1. I think my original reply to you got lost in the ether, or maybe stuck in some silicon.
      Hopefully your little adventurers wont bring home some nasty cold with them. Kids seem to always bring home what ever is going around.
      I enjoy reading your posts about your adventures with them in the English country side. Not too many castles here in the US and my kids are teens.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  5. Interesting post! Haven’t gotten sick post-race yet, but I have had a similar experience post-climb last fall. Campsites have the same hygiene issues, and seeing that I was doing a 15-hr drive one day, a 12-hour climb the next (lots of energy expended; 6,000 total elevation gain over 12 miles), then having to drive those 15 hours home that night, I was way run down. And then I got sick.

    Hadn’t thought much about some of that, but you’re right. I’m not much of a rocket-snot person, but if I need to spit I try really hard to make sure no one’s around. I’ll be more careful in the future.

    1. All that driving and climbing will wear you down.
      During my race yesterday I saw another opportunity to pick something up. Most of the people handing out drinks wore latex gloves. The people handing out PowerGels did not.
      So one wipe of the nose, a reach into a box of PowerGels and viola some runner has just inherited someone else’s virus.
      My intent isn’t to make people afraid and stop running, just to inform people. A lot of us just never think about these things.
      Some of these things we can control, ie how we navigate the porta-potty. Other things we cannot like snot blasts and dirty hands.

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