Winter continues the cold and flu season. While fitness is associated with strong immune function, actual training and/or dieting can suppress our immune systems, giving opportunistic germs a better shot at both getting established and hanging around longer than they would in an otherwise healthy non-athlete.
As winter settles in, daylight periods shorten, weather worsens, and we interact with more people who are vectors for illness. There are steps we can take to minimize both the chance of infection and the duration of illness should we fall ill.
Avoiding Illness for Athletes
- Avoid crowds – Time trips for holiday shopping, working out at the gym and other activities for other than “peak” periods. Less exposure means less chance of catching something.
- Watch your hygiene – Wash your hands often. Use the wipes and hand sanitizers at the stores and supermarket. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth unless you’ve washed your hands first. Wash food thoroughly, wipe down surfaces where ill people may have sneezed or breathed. Being clean and vigilant is not germ-a-phobia. It’s being smart.
- “Go Home” – Make the suggestion, if your co-worker is showing up to work sick, that it would be better for everyone if they took a day off to recover and not get the rest of the office ill.
- Avoid regularly riding in the wet/rain – Mist kicked up by vehicles can contain all manner of germs, especially in agricultural areas where runoff from fields is present. But even in urban areas you may end up inhaling mist containing what someone’s pet or wild animal left on a lawn or sidewalk. Doing group rides where you are eating tire spray, and riding in areas where heavy traffic creates a constant mist are to be avoided. If you do end up riding in the rain, shower after and wipe down your equipment.
- Vitamin D – Short days and indoor training mean a sharp decline in vitamin D production, weakening your immune system. Supplementation is cheap and simple. Take that pill daily.
- Avoid SAD – Especially for folks in mountain areas where the shortening of daylight is more pronounced and winter weather includes long overcast days, Seasonal Affective Disorder is not uncommon. If you find yourself tired, depressed, unmotivated or frequently ill when the days get shorter, take action. Lightbox therapy has been proven to be effective. See my SAD FAQ for more information.
- Eat Well – Avoid the holiday temptation to eat low value foods. Eat well by adding a second helping of veggies or salad before the desserts come out, and watch your portions. On the other hand, starvation makes you vulnerable so don’t go overboard with the dieting.
- Rest more – Sleep is curative. Short naps help boost the immune system.
- Get the Flu Shot (maybe) – When it doubt, ask your doctor.
What to Do When You Do Fall Ill
Doing all of the above will help keep you healthy. Despite our best efforts though, almost all of us will inevitably fall prey to some random opportunistic bug. As athletes, our first inclination is to continue training, or to constantly “test” ourselves to see if we’re healthy enough to get back on schedule. Time and time again I have seen this create situations where instead of resolving in a few days, illnesses hang on, and even occasionally develop into secondary issues like walking pneumonia. Training when sick results in losing long blocks of time and losing fitness instead of getting fitter or getting well.
Below I will outline steps to take if we do fall ill. But first, put on your magic ruby slippers, click your heels together three times, and repeat the following:
“I will not dissolve to a puddle of goo or gain 20 pounds from taking a few days, or even a week off!”
Now repeat it three more times, and read on…
- Back Off – If you are experiencing a symptom or two but are not sure you are actually getting ill (vs. an allergy or other reaction to our environment that you will recovery from quickly) reduce workload in intensity and duration until you and your coach have a handle on what is going on.
- Full Stop – As soon as you are certain you are getting ill, stop training. The immune system is regularly taxed by post-exercise recovery. When you are sick you want to help your immune system do its illness-fighting job. Continuing training (even lightening the load) means you are asking your immune system to do two jobs.
- Don’t Test It – Avoid the temptation to go out for a workout to see if your symptoms are mild enough to get by. The odds of making the situation worse vs. getting some benefit are ~80/20.
- See the doctor – Or at least make a call. Often there is one particular bug around that responds quickly to a particular drug or course of action.
- No Symptoms is Best – Wait until you are 100% healthy to train. Germs, whatever the type, are making you sick. And every species of germ has some weak and some strong germs with different levels of toughness. Your immune system is doing hand to hand combat, killing off the easy prey until only the really tough guys are hanging around. When we return to action too early, we weaken our immune system right at the moment it’s dealing with the toughest of the bugs. This is also why you should…
- Finish your antibiotics – Let’s not create super germs. Kill them all, big and small.
- Rest – Use the time you would be training to take a nap.
- Stay Off the Scale – Illnesses often cause us to retain water, as will the standard advice regarding colds about drinking plenty of fluids. A gallon of water weighs over 8 pounds, so putting on a few pounds in fluid is quick and easy. So is losing it. Don’t drive yourself crazy by getting weighed while sick.
- Eat Right – Healthy foods help our immune system. When you’re feeling lousy, low value foods can be tempting; no one dies from a piece of pie but keep the portions small and frequency low.
- Repeat that phrase again…“I will not dissolve to a puddle of goo or gain 20 pounds if I take a a few days, or even a week off!”
- Three is less than Thirty – Again, I’ve too often seen people try to come back too early, push the envelope and end up losing a month or more after developing secondary infections. Three days off when you might have gotten by with two is still better than thirty days off when you might have gotten by with two. The math is simple. So is…
No Symptoms is Best!
Coach Kurt Bickel has guided many athletes through illness and onto Regional and National Championship medals. He is available for training programs and consultation for all levels of athletes.