More than a year after COVID-19 surfaced, the pandemic rages on. While globally the situation remains dire—we can only hope the virus is past its peak—there’s finally a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Two vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna and both in the form of a double dose, were authorized and recommended to prevent COVID in December. While the rollout is moving slower than expected—as of the end of January, about 25 million people had received at least one dose of a vaccine, almost a month behind the projected timeline—there’s reason to believe that the dissemination is gaining momentum. Three more vaccines are in the midst of large-scale clinical trials.
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For the latest vaccine information and recommendations, bookmark the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site and check it often. But since you likely won’t find any running-related answers there, we turned to three experts—all medical professionals and runners—to help fill in the gaps. Keep in mind that the virus and vaccine are both rapidly evolving situations, and that the information offered below is meant to supplement rather than replace personal advice from your physician.
What Symptoms Can I Expect From the Vaccine?
As with any shot, reactions to the COVID vaccines vary from one person to the next. Christine Firth, M.D., an internal medicine specialist in Phoenix, says that symptoms are generally not severe, and that some people don’t experience any. Firth says common side effects include pain and/or achiness at the injection site (possibly more severe than that of the influenza vaccine), general malaise/fatigue, body aches, headache, chills, fever, and joint pains. Depending on the person, these can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
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How Might Symptoms Differ Between the First and Second Shots?
Though best known in the running world for her sixth-place finish in the 2019 World Championship marathon, Roberta Groner is also a registered nurse in Pittsburgh. She posted a photo of her second vaccine last month and reported no major side effects from either dose, but slightly different experiences: a sore arm and slight nausea for half a day after the first, and chills that lasted a few hours after the second.
According to Kara Calhoun, M.D., a pulmonary/critical care fellow with a masters of public health in Denver, Groner’s experience isn’t uncommon. She says, “The second round has been worse for a lot of people”—though not everyone. That goes for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. While Calhoun had minimal symptoms after both doses, Firth had a sore arm after the first dose and a relatively sorer arm after the second, along with mild fatigue, light-headedness, and nausea. Whatever you experience afterward, Calhoun emphasizes that “degree of symptoms does not relate to the efficacy of the vaccine.”
How Soon After Receiving a Vaccination Can I Run?
It’s unlikely that running right before or after receiving the vaccine will impact how well it works. Firth and Calhoun encourage common sense by listening to your body and being flexible with your training until your body gives you the green light to proceed.
Firth completed her standard run the day of her first vaccine. (She ran after receiving it.) She took a gentler approach after the second dose, riding a stationary bike instead of running on the two days afterward. Calhoun biked the same day of her vaccine without issue, and Groner ran a tempo workout the morning after each dose.
As far as upper-body work, Calhoun actually encourages it post-vaccination. It may seem counterintuitive to tax a sore arm, but, Calhoun says, working out can sometimes help with muscle stiffness. If your soreness is severe, if you’re generally feeling unwell, or if you aren’t used to strength training, it would be wise to push a lift back until your symptoms subside.
If I Have an Underlying Medical Condition, Should My Vaccination Approach Change?
The presence of an underlying medical condition such as cancer, obesity, or a heart condition, should not only not keep you from getting vaccinated, but should serve as a catalyst. According to Firth, “Many medical conditions place you at higher risk for a severe COVID-19 infection, so vaccination is recommended to those who are eligible.”
She adds that speaking with your physician and the vaccination provider in advance is an especially good idea if you are “immunocompromised from a medical condition or medications, have a history of immediate allergic reaction to a prior vaccine or injectable therapy, or currently experiencing a moderate to severe illness.” Pregnant women, while considered a high-risk demographic, have been recommended for vaccination by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The one exception is any individual who has had a severe reaction to any ingredient in the vaccine, such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or polysorbate. If that’s you, or if you have questions about other allergies, find CDC recommendations here and ask your doctor to help you formulate an alternative approach.
Are There Any Downsides a Runner Should Consider Before Getting Vaccinated?
In short: no. Firth, Calhoun, and Groner all echoed some version of the sentiment that feeling crummy for a day or two far outweighs the possibility of getting or spreading the virus.
Firth calls the vaccines extremely effective, with 95 percent efficacy after the second dose, as well as “the most promising approach for controlling the pandemic.” She signed up when it first became available, with her patients, family, community, and personal health in mind.
Calhoun chimes in from a runner’s perspective, adding that COVID “could really devastate a season” or prevent someone from training normally for a significant amount of time. Shortness of breath lasting months is not unheard of, no matter how fit a person is when infected. And according to Calhoun, as of now we don’t have a solution for that, nor do we understand the long-term effects of the virus.
Groner agrees, saying, “You may feel ill for one day, but honestly, that’s better than contracting COVID and potentially spreading it to loved ones. I hope that all in the running community will play their part in building a safer and healthier future by vaccinating.”