20 February 2020

Tennis atishoo - should you play with a cold?

Please see our Coronavirus update

It's the time of year for coughs and colds (but hopefully nothing worse). Is it wise to take to the court and carying on playing and if so, what can you do to prepare yourself for the challenge?

Coronavirus update (13/03/2020)

We currently advise, primarily as a courtesy to other players, not to play if you have a runny nose and/or other symptoms of a cold or cough. See our note on Coronavirus

Pros play through all manner of aches, pains, and injury and often go on court suffering from stomach upsets and viruses. The common cold is hardly likely to put them off however uncomfortable playing with the sniffles might be. But the pros have access to specialist medical advice and have to make career decisions about when they need to play.

Nevertheless, the consequences of playing through colds, even for the pros, is perhaps under-estimated.

Babette Pluim, Chief Medical Adviser of the  Royal Netherlands Lawn Tennis Association in an article for Aspetar, a sports medicine journal, cites a study of Dutch players that shows playing with an illness is not far behind playing with an injury in terms of the challenges players face.

The dangers for the player are real: "A long, strenuous practice day, an exhausting tennis match or persistent over-training or stress can increase the susceptibility to and severity of upper respiratory and other viral infections. Strenuous exercise has a depressant effect on the immune system that can persist for a week or more....if signs and symptoms indicate that a viral infection is impending, the player should greatly reducethe  volume and intensity of heavy training for 1 to 2 days and take more rest."

But that doesn't mean you should necessarily call off your match.

Most medical opinion agrees:

  • You are safe to play if your symptoms are "above the neck": Don't play if you have a chesty cough or congestion, or upset stomach.
  • Don't play if you have a fever: Look out for symptoms that may suggest flu, including aching muscles and joints, fatigue, and a temperature. Playing with flu-like viruses is potetially dangerous.

But if you are "fit" to play, it isn't all bad news

Playing tennis, and getting fresh air, may well help clear your head and, at least in the short term, inprove your breathing, according to the medics.

If it is just a cold, getting excercise isn't likely to make it worse and nor is it necessarily going to affect your performance. According to a study looking at the effects of a cold on performance levels for people taking excercise cited in the New York Times a few years back, there was no notable fall off. “I was surprised their lung function wasn’t impaired,” Leonard Kaminsky, an exercise physiologist at Ball State University told the paper. “I was surprised their overall exercise performance wasn’t impaired, even though they were reporting feeling fatigued.”

A few final thoughts

  • Bring tissues
  • Be courteous to your opponent (don't wipe your nose on the tennis balls)
  • Drink plenty of water
  • It is no shame to bow out: if you are feeling rough, retire

Want to get playing? Find your nearest league here