What can you be including in your training and diet to keep you fit and healthy so you can reach optimum performance?
Within this article I will discuss areas of your training and lifestyle that may inhibit your immune system and will explore how well structured training, recovery, and power foods can boost your immune system, develop your strength, power and general health.
Can your training have a negative impact on your immune system?
Actually, moderate training will boost your immune system, by this I mean the aerobic runs at relatively low heart rate. It is the harder intense interval sessions that can depress your immune cell function. For example, hard track sessions, hill reps at above race pace, in fact any training where your heart rate is very high. These will definitely leave your defences open for those germs to grab hold. Therefore from a training perspective, make sure that hard sessions are followed by easier recovery aerobic sessions, or a rest day. Build recovery weeks into your programme. Make sure you are getting adequate sleep and not getting up at silly o’clock to hit hard training sessions on an empty stomach. Listen to your body! Learn when you need to back off. If you wake and your heart rate is very high, it’s a clear indicator your body is working harder than it should be.
How to support your Immune system with healthy food and sensible lifestyle choices.
It goes without saying that stress has a negative impact on your health. Whilst sometimes this is unavoidable, structuring time to relax, and prevent stress is critical to good health. This means good quality sleep, (leave the electronic gadgets downstairs) Yoga, Pilates, Mindfulness classes are all great stress relievers and will have a positive impact on your training.
Making the right food choices will also affect your stress levels, health as well as performance. Unfortunately, two thirds of the average calorie intake in modern countries comes from fats, sugars and refined flour. Diets low in anti-oxidants can lead to certain cancers, and low calcium levels and Vitamin D will contribute towards Osteoporosis. There are 100s of chemical reactions that need to take place involving over 30 vitamins and minerals for foods to be successfully absorbed and used. Without these vital macro nutrients the body cannot unlock the energy from your food. Yet I still see athletes that eat little if any fruit or veg, rely on unrefined carbs and drink very little. Then question why they lack energy, sleep poorly, and are not progressing in their performance? It’s not rocket science is it?
So, for now, let’s keep this very simple. Below are a few simple rules that can get you started on the right track for eating well.
10 simple rules for a healthy diet.
1. Avoid eating refined carbohydrates (white pasta, white bread)
2. Eat lots of green leafy vegetables and root vegetables (e.g. spinach, Kale)
3. Limit consumption of sugar, cakes, biscuits.
4. Eat more beans, lentils, whole grains and foods rich in Omega 3 (limits muscle inflammation and that DOMS feeling!)
5. Eat PLENTY of fresh fruit a day (Antioxidants fight off free radicals that can cause cancers and disease)
6. Limit caffeinated drinks after 4pm (better sleep, improved recovery)
7. Minimise the consumption of processed meats with chemical additives.
8. Limit alcohol to 1 glass per day
9. Avoid fried, burnt or browned foods, hydrogenated fats and excess animal fats
10. Drink 6 glasses of water a day or herbal / fruit tea or watered down fruit juices
When should you be eating your meals for optimum performance and recovery?
Ideally, consume a good well balanced meal 2-4 hours before a training session so you have the required energy and nutrients. For example, a great start to the day especially over the winter months, would be a bowl of porridge with high antioxidant fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, black currants, and add on top some flax or chia seeds ( both are nutrient rich, including Omega 3 and antioxidants) plus a drizzle of honey to give it a sweeter taste. POST exercise, remember the 15 minute rule to replenish those muscles that have been working so hard. A homemade smoothie is perfect. Easy to make, and has everything. Milk is fantastic due to its nutritional value and it is ideal for rehydration after hard sessions. Throw in some of those top antioxidant fruits again (Remember, frozen fruit is a lot cheaper!), add a bit of nut oil for extra protein, banana and if you have a sweater tooth, honey. Alternatively, peanut butter on wholemeal toast and banana is certainly a popular option! Then within an hour a good well balanced meal such as a sweet potato with tuna, and green leafy vegetables.
What if you need to shed a few pounds post-Christmas and are still training hard?
There is no quick fix! A sensible approach to healthy eating is key. Follow the 10 point rule above and do not restrict calorie intake by more than 250 calories a day. Fad diets, limiting calorie intake when training increases cortisol levels and will lead to poor performance, delayed recovery and a subsequent loss of immune function which will leave you prone to infection, not to mention injuries as well.
Therefore, by taking on a few simple measures each day, your general health and performance will improve. Just to recap:
Plan rest and recovery in your training, this can be active recovery or full rest days. Listen to your body and respond to what it’s telling you.
Get plenty of good quality sleep: Aim for around 7 hours, avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol and electrical devices late at night as these will affect the quality of your sleep
Avoid stress: If this is unavoidable, build in activities, exercises that can help you manage your stress.
Eat healthily! Stick to the 10 simple rules and plan the timing of your meals to support your training needs.
If after all of this, you still pick up a bug, learn to listen to your body, and REST! You will recover faster than if you try to keep training through it!