Welcome to Flu Season
I’m writing this with less than a week before our long-planned family holiday cruise in the Caribbean (homeschooling is great for family travel outside of the standard packed times!). And of course, three out of the four of us are fighting off various stages of the flu! For me, it probably doesn’t help that my taking up cyclocross this fall has meant a lot of hard efforts in rather nasty Canadian weather.
From an athletic perspective, the one saving grace of getting sick at this time of the season is that my athletic goals or long-term fitness are not really impacted, as long as I take things easy and don’t turn molehills of sniffles into mountains of illness. However, if your main season goals involve the current cross madness raging throughout the northern hemisphere, what are some ways to maintain your health? And are there any potential supplements that can help to bolster your immune system?
Of course, the flu and other infections are not restricted to the colder months, but can lay the best-laid fitness plans to a crashing halt at any time of the year. Therefore, good hygiene and the proper nursing of your immune system are critical throughout the year.
Hygiene: the Bleedingly Obvious
Not to sound like mom, but many of the things you can do to minimize the risk of infections fall into the bleedingly obvious category, including:
• Do not share. water bottles, sunglasses, helmets – anything that has been licked or sweated on – without thoroughly disinfecting!
• Keep your hands clean. Stop and try counting how frequently your hands touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth. If that doesn’t make you regularly wash your hands, I don’t know how much more I can help! (BTW, while writing the two short sentences above in this paragraph, and despite being suddenly conscious of what I was doing with my hands, I leaned my chin and neck onto the palm of my right hand. I then adjusted my glasses with my right hand, touching my nose bridge and the edges of the tear ducts of each eye in the process. Excuse me while I go wash my hands…)
• Food safety. Be careful about your food choices, and make sure to thoroughly wash and rinse fruits and vegetables before cutting, cooking, or eating.
• Beware the mob. Any parent knows that kids are the perfect storm of infections, what with all the groups that they are exposed to through daycare, school, sports, and community activities. It’s not bad to be paranoid and make use of hand sanitizers whenever the thought strikes you to, especially when picking up or dropping off your kids.
• The travel bug. Travel to races often means cramming to tie up loose ends before the weekend, long hours of driving or flying, and poor sleep and nutrition. Off-season, with the possibility of travel for Thanksgiving and the approaching holidays, stress is compounded with exposure to whole new ecosystems of germs. Flying or other means of mass transport are also a germ’s preferred means of transport, what with a whole host of strangers suddenly plopped together and breathing the same reconditioned and often dry air. This is a time to increase hygiene awareness, eat healthy, drink lots of fluids, and get extra rest.
Infections and the Athlete
It’s likely not a surprise that a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity is a major predictor of increased risk for infections and illnesses. What may be really galling to athletes is that they are often at similar if not greater risk for infections as the couch potato. The relationship between activity levels and risk of infections is proposed to be a roughly “J” shaped curve tilted at 45o. In this relationship, optimal resistance to infections occur with moderate levels of physical activity and fitness, typical to that of a recreational athlete exercising moderately 3 times a week or so.
But with an increase in training volume and intensity beyond this moderate level, the immune system seems to get depressed and the resistance to infections can greatly decrease, to levels at or below that of a sedentary individual. Indeed, 24% of ultramarathoners completing a 160 km running event experienced a significant episode of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection (URTI) in the following week (1).
While most of us are not doing exercise to such extremes, the take home message is that most of us should consider ourselves athletes in the game of life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but corporate athletes can often face much more total stress than even top professional athletes. Ten to twelve hours of training a week can seem like nothing, but when it’s squeezed in alongside a highly-demanding job and family responsibilities, the stress level involved in being an age-group athlete can become astronomical. Therefore, many of us are likely closer to being an elite athlete in terms of overall stress than we think, and we should always be on the lookout for ways to actively increase our recovery and decrease our stress.
The Weak Week
Besides chronic physical activity, the other strong predictor of an increased risk of infection is recent activity level. Namely, a single intense bout of exercise, as with the ultramarathon example above, can lead to an acute depression of immune factors, such that an “open window” of suppressed immunity exists for the 48-72 h following an intense effort.
So one thing that we should be planning for is extra caution and health awareness in the periods immediately after races or very hard training blocks, or else run a risk of an unplanned sickness messing up your finely tuned training.
I’m Sick – Now What?
The big question, of course, is what to do when you still inevitably get sick. Do you maintain your training regardless, modify your program, or just rest until you’re better again? Most of us tend to be the type who hate sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, and tend to lean more towards continuing training than just resting. However, just as we’re all individuals in our responses to exercise, no two illnesses are identical, and neither are our responses to it. When in doubt though, it’s almost always to go against our natural instincts and rest more rather than trying to train through it.
Think of it this way – it’s extremely rare that our cold or flu is going to get WORSE with rest! The same can rarely be said of the opposite scenario, and the odds of getting yourself sicker and more run-down – and therefore losing even more long-term fitness – are usually higher with continued training through an illness. So when in doubt, give yourself a break and give your body extra energy and resources to fight the infection and get back to health.
With mom’s advice out of the way, in December we will look at two recent studies on the acute and short-term use of supplements to help decrease the risk of URTIs following prolonged or intense exercise.
In the meantime, I’m off to wash my hands.
Nieman, DC et al. Relationship between salivary IgA secretion and upper respiratory tract infection following a 160-km race. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 46:158-162, 2006.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at email@example.com .