As ol’ Ned Stark said, “Winter is coming”, and after the Arctic spell we had last year, we need to think ahead and be prepared. Although we know that moderate exercise is good for keeping the bugs away, it is also evident that those of us engaged in more intense training, or have recently competed in an endurance event, appear to have an increased risk of developing symptoms of the upper respiratory tract (URT) (1). To us at Amplify Life, that just seems unfair!
To make matters worse, if you’re training to compete at any level, getting unwell can lead to a nice relaxing anxiety attack about time ticking away towards your next race! Many of us constantly analyse our levels of fitness, or lack thereof when the flu comes around. It adds an extra intensity and stress to a winter bug that maybe non-athletes don’t get.
We are itching to get back in our trainers and training schedules and, as a result, we may not rest quite enough and allow our bodies to recover before pushing the heart rate up again.
So, from learning through experience, here are my top tips for staying well and top of your training game during Winter (..and not ending up feeling like a white walker in the army of the undead)!
Eat well and hydrate often
- It may seem simple, but one thing that does your body no good is training hard and not eating correctly to meet your requirements. Immune system function appears to be suppressed during periods of low calorific intake and weight reduction. Therefore, if you are prone to catching illness, it is advised to lose weight slowly and during non-competitive training phases when training volume is lower (2). In general, eating a healthy balanced diet on a day to day basis is a simple step to ensure an optimally functioning immune system. As, if you are energy deficient your immune system may suffer, and you may be more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI).
- A healthy immune system benefits from a diet adequate in calories, high in fresh fruit and vegetables, omega 3 fats, nuts and whole grains. Ensuring three meals a day and good recovery meals / snacks that contain carbs (50g) and protein (20g) post training will help keep your body in top form.
- Keep hydration levels up. Drink regularly throughout the day (moderate tea and coffee intake also counts) and ensure after you have trained you hydrate enough for your urine to be clear.
Carbohydrate and fluid intake during exercise
- Studies have found that carbohydrate intake may play an important role in maintaining effective immune function. Low carbohydrate intake may cause direct immunosuppression, as immune cells function best on glucose alone.
- Additionally, ingestion of carbohydrates during prolonged, intense levels of exercise can reduce the production of cortisol as a response to training. Cortisol, known as the ‘stress hormone’, has been linked with immune suppression. If an athlete is training fasted or in an intentionally low-glycogen state, it is advised not do this more than a few days at a time. Plus, if you’re prone to illness and bugs it’s probably a safe bet to not do it at all until your immune system is back to strength.
- Staying hydrated during exercise has multiple benefits. One key reason is that it ensures saliva flow is maintained (mmm nice right?). Saliva is important as it contains antimicrobial properties, so if saliva flow decreases there is a chance that we become more susceptible to infection from viruses and bacteria (1).
- Vitamin C has antioxidant properties which help counteract the effect of damaging free radicals you produce as a result of heavy exertion. If you manage to have plenty of fruit and vegetables in your diet, then supplementation may not be necessary. However, during high levels of training and getting over illness, you may benefit from increasing your Vit C intake to give your body that extra boost.
- A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (3) showed how the supplementation of 600mg Vitamin C per day for 3 weeks prior to a 90km ultra marathon race, reduced the incidence of URTI during the 2 week recovery period.
- Probiotics or ‘friendly bacteria’ are getting more and more attention these days. Whether you are fermenting your own food or taking a supplement, we are much more aware of how significant our bowel health plays in so many aspects of our wellness. Thinking about adding these into your diet may be a wise idea to help fortify your immune system.
- Active people should look out for probiotics that contain at least 10 billion live species of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. If you don’t want to take supplements, try using live natural yogurt or foods such as sauerkraut and kefir for example.
- A double blinded study in the International Journal of Sport, Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (4) supplemented 84 endurance athletes with a probiotic or placebo over 4 months of winter training. They measured the incidence of URTI in both groups. The number of athletes that experienced 1 or more weeks of URTI was 36% higher in the placebo group compared to those that took a probiotic.
- Vitamin D is recognised as having an important role in immunity and helps to defend against the common cold. Vitamin D deficiencies are common in the athletic population, although the general population also suffers, especially in the months between October and March due to lack of natural sunlight.
- Individuals are advised to supplement every day with 10 mcg of Vitamin D a day, and make the most of daylight hours!
- It’s also crucial in assisting phosphate and calcium absorption, so getting enough Vitamin D is important when making sure you can get everything you can from what you eat and supplement.
Immune Boosting Top Tips summary!
- Don’t skip meals and avoid negative energy balance. Overall energy intake should match your requirements. Don’t shy away from carbohydrates, and if you are doing fasted training / training low carb, only do it for a few days at a time.
- Consider taking carbohydrate during training (30-60g / hr). Taking this in fluid form also helps maintain hydration and saliva flow.
- Ensure regular intake of protein (20g per meal per day) and focus on post training meals (0.3g/kg of body weight).
- Regular intake of fruit, vegetables and salads (at least 7 a day). If you think you will struggle with this consider taking a multi vitamin.
- Take Vitamin D supplement between October and March.
- Take probiotic every day ensuring it has at least 10 billion live bacteria
- Consider supplementing with extra Vit C (no more than 1000mg) leading up to focus races.
(* note : if you are taking a multivitamin, to avoid double dosing check what it contains as you may not need extra vitamin C or D, for example.)
Article by Alex Cook – Registered Sports & Clinical Dietician
- Gleeson M 2016 Immunological aspects of sport nutrition. Immunology and Cell biology 94 117-123
- Nieman DC et al 1996 Immune response to obesity and moderate weight loss Int. J Obesity relatedMetab. Discord, 20:353-360
- Peters EM et al Vitamin C supplementation reduces the incidence of postface symptoms of URTI in ultra marathon runners Am Journal Clinical Nutrition 57: 170-174
- Gleeson M, Bishop NC, Oliveira M, Tauler P 2010 Daily probiotics (Lactobacillus casei Shirota) Reduction of infection incidence in athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1-10