Moderate training certainly does boost your immune system, however if you go through periods of intense training, without the adequate rest and recovery then such training can certainly depress your immune cell function. This is due to the increased levels of stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline and cortisol, associated with intense exercise) inhibiting your immune system . Subsequently, it leaves your cells vulnerable, due to their decreased protection, when viruses or bacteria can gain control, and before you know it, an infection takes hold of you!
Therefore, if as athletes, we are aware of when we are most susceptible to these vulnerabilities, and pro actively work at limiting the risks, we will certainly reduce the number of bugs we get throughout the year. So, when are we most susceptible?
We have already mentioned above that long periods of intense training makes us vulnerable, therefore making sure that we we build in recovery weeks, and do not train hard day after day without rest will certainly help. Also, as athletes, you need to take responsibility for your health, and start recognising the signs and symptoms. Do you find that you are waking up with a sore throat, that may go throughout the day, but is taking the edge off your performance? Or that your Heart Rate is rising quicker than it normally does? Be in touch with your body, and know when you need to back off, and keep this communication flowing with your coach. They are not psychic, communication is everything!
Also the long endurance events will also have the same effect on our bodies, so we need to prepare our bodies before the event so we are in the best of health going into the event, as well as taking immediate recovery strategies after the event as well, to minimise the risks from coughs and colds. Remember that poor diet, a lack of sleep, and stress also inhibits our immune system, and all these factors need to be taken into consideration when training, racing and keeping fit and healthy. Even short term dieting during periods of hard raining can result in a loss of immune function and will make you prone to infections, so if you are looking to lose a few pounds after Christmas, you need to make sure your nutrition still meets the need of your training, and do not restrict calorie intake too much as under eating will increase cortisol levels. Remember, a healthy diet that meets your energy needs is essential and one that provides adequate micro nutrients required for immune cell function (Iron Zinc Magnesium, manganese, vitamins A C D E B6, B12 and folic acid) is essential for your maintaining immune defenses.
So, how can you as an athlete give yourself the best possible chance to avoid illness?
Below are a few recommended Immunity Boosting strategies, to keep away the bugs this winter!
- FRUIT VEGETABLES NUTS AND SEEDS: A diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables whole grains, beans, lentils nuts and seeds will go along way to protecting your immune system
- TRAINING PROGRAMME: Make sure that your micro cycles include recovery weeks and that you are not completing a hard session after a hard session. This will lead to fatigue and a drop in immunity
- SLEEP: Aim to get a good nights sleep, avoid caffeine after 4-5pm, try not to eat too late. A glass of milk or hot milk before bed helps your muscles recover and can help with sleep. Alcohol will affect your quality of sleep
- AVOID LOW CARB DIETS: Low glycogen stores are associated with bigger increases in cortisol levels therefore more likely to suppress your immune system.
- DRINK PLENTY OF FLUID: As mentioned above – it increases your saliva production, which contains anti bacterial proteins that can fight off airborne germs. Also if over the winter you are working a lot indoors, makes sure you include electrolytes in your water, to replace what you are losing through sweat.
- CONSUME A SPORTS DRINK: (apprx 6g CARB / 100ml providing 30-60g carb per hour) during INTENSE exercise over 1 hour. This can reduce stress hormone levels and the associated drop in immunity following exercise
If you find that following a healthy balanced diet, with the right balance of training, sleep and rest is not avoiding those coughs and colds, the following supplements can also be of benefit:
- ANTIOXIDANT SUPPLEMENT / or VIT C DAILY (1-3g) This will help reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infection during periods of intense training.
- GLUTAMINE SUPPLEMENT: Can also help to reduce infections. Glutamine levels can fall up to 20% following intense exercise, which puts the immune system under great strain
- ECHINACEA – Taken for up to 4 weeks during a period of intense training can help boost your immunity and reduce the risk of colds and flu
- QUERCETIN SUPPLEMENT (1000mg/day) during periods of intense training has been known to help reduce the risk of upper respiratory illness
- PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT – can help reduce the severity and duration of respiratory illness and benefit immunity
If you would like more specific guidance with your nutritional strategies, such as what foods are the best options, when you should be eating, and how you can support your training needs, and / or if you need support and guidance with how to train progressively and effectively, please contact me, and one of our coaches can put together a programme, specific to your needs.