On Running with Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

I don’t usually write service pieces on my blog — some outlets do that better than I ever could  — but, oddly enough, Runner’s World has never done an article on how to run with whooping cough.

So, here are some tips for runners who find themselves whooping it up:

See your doctor. He or she will put you on antibiotics, which is good. He or she will also tell you whether it is safe for you to run. My doctor told me running up to six or eight miles, easy, wouldn’t hurt me. Listen to what your doctor tells you. If he or she says “no running,” I’m sorry — the rest of my tips won’t help you. (Unless your doctor is always encouraging you not to run, no matter how trivial your problems. Then, you should find a new one!)

Be prepared for breaks. Don’t try to run through a coughing fit. You’ll just get excessively winded. I’ve found that stopping and hunching over with my hands on my knees is the most comfortable way to cough mid-run. Plus: Easier loogeying! (Yes. I made that a verb.) Running seems to loosen and thin out whatever is in my lungs, so it’s easier to expel.

Run outside… You can’t spit on a treadmill. Plus, it’s harder to stop to cough without flying off the belt.

…unless there’s an air quality alert. It’s been over 90 degrees here for the last couple days, and I’ve seen air quality alerts from the Department of Environmental Protection warning of unhealthy levels of pollution for “sensitive groups.” Guess what, once-healthy runner? You’re now part of a “sensitive group.” Stick to the elliptical, or take a day off.

Bring reinforcements. It’s possible to cough hard enough to throw up or pass out. Now’s a good time to run with your phone, your Road ID, and a public-transit pass/some cash in case you can’t make it home on your own. Better yet: Find a patient running buddy, or someone who ran a marathon less than a week ago (thanks, Tish!), to slog it out with you.

Try this warmup plan. Super-fast runner and running coach Budd Coates adapted this for me from the warmup for asthmatic runners in his book, Running on Air. (Which I fully intend to finish once I’m comfortable thinking that much about my breathing again.) I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve found I cough less as my runs progress, once my lungs have warmed up.

Note: If you’ve read the book, you know what 51 means. If you haven’t, think of it as slow and super-comfortable — a conversational pace.

5 minute walk
10 sec at 51
50 sec walk
10 sec at 51
50 sec walk
20 sec at 51
40 sec walk
20 sec at 51
40 sec walk
30 sec at 51
30 sec walk
30 sec at 51
30 sec walk
1 min at 51
1 min walk
2 min at 51
30 sec walk
3 min at 51
30 sec walk
Run at 51 for as long as you feel comfortable.

Hang in there. This could be worse. As long as you stay somewhat active, you won’t lose all your fitness. (That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.)

I’ve finished my second round of antibiotics. I’m still on my steroid inhaler, presumably until I start feeling better. And I’m trying to stay optimistic.

After logging just 34 miles last month, I’m eager for a blank slate.


And I’m digging the word of the month in my training journal. It’s STRONG. Beneath that, it says: “When I don’t feel like I have control over a situation, and there are more variables than I think I can handle, I tell myself that I am STRONG. This helps me believe I can handle whatever is thrown at me.”

Yeah, man. I am STRONG. And I won’t let whooping cough totally destroy my life and derail my goals.


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9 Responses to On Running with Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

  1. Hope you stay on the mend and feel much better soon! Glad you can still run a bit.

  2. Karen says:

    I have had whooping cough for 9 weeks now…the worst is over but still choking and gagging. started running a few weeks ago. Ran 7 miles today but oh so slow. Chest still hurts and it’s impossible to go any faster. Looks like you are ahead of me by a few months..do you ever get your speed back? Hope you are feeling better!

    • Meghan Loftus says:

      Hi Karen,

      I’m glad this post found someone who needed it!

      I am not 100% sure if I have my speed back, but I was at my peak fitness of my adult life the month before I got whooping cough. (Of course.)

      I ran a 10K last fall and this fall (same event) and ran one minute slower this year (~4 months after whooping began), but it was also hotter/more humid this year.

      I think I’m roughly where I was at before the cough, if a little bit slower. I still have the occasional coughing fit, usually brought on by laughing, but I’m not gagging/choking anymore.

      Get well soon! Whooping cough is the worst.

  3. Erin says:

    Thank you for posting this. I was training for my second half when I got taken out by a virus and asthma about a month ago and somehow, during that illness, I picked up pertussis. My doctor thinks I should exercise just to keep things loose, but when I Googled “running with pertussis,” I didn’t get much.

    Like you, I was probably in the best shape I’ve been in my adult life. Now, I am not. I notice you posted this a while ago. How long did it take you to completely get your groove back?

    • Meghan Loftus says:

      Hi Erin,

      It’s hard to say! I still haven’t run a PR since the Whoop struck, but I was within a minute of my 10K PR (in worse conditions) just a few months after I got over it.

      It did take quite a while to get over it — I wasn’t able to run without stopping to cough until about a month and a half after I first showed symptoms. Even then, I was still coughing, just not quite as choking-ly.

      Good luck! Whooping cough is the worst.

  4. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this! Took forever to find someone besides an MD who commented on real life as a runner with this! Worst thing ever! 1st a broken food derailed Boston for me and as I started training again this! Would trade this for a broken bone anytime!

    • Meghan Loftus says:

      Yikes! Sorry to hear you have the whoop. It will pass, but, yeah…it’s awful. Hope you’re at least able to sleep, some of the time.

  5. Daniel Soule says:

    Got a mild case second week in July. The coughing fits are gone after about 4 weeks but I still have a problem with an occasional cough at 6 weeks, voice comes and goes and tightness in the voicebox that gets worse throughout the day. I can run just fine but I’m clearing my throat a lot and when I do cough my throat wants to close up sometimes still. I’m coming up on 6 or 7 weeks and training for a half in October. I’ll be glad when this is completely over.. its a NASTY bug and I’m so used to be totally healthy.

    • Meghan Loftus says:

      You still have time! Sounds like things are improving and hopefully you’ll be 100% before your half. Good luck and get well soon!

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