Following on from “Off-season training: Part 1” where I discussed some ways to get more ‘bang for your buck’ from winter training, this post addresses another issue I see a lot over winter: athletes getting ill. Protecting your immune health during the winter months is essential if you wish to have a good off-season (for endurance athletes or motorsport athletes) or just want to keep training through the winter (combat sports, bodybuilders etc).
Why do we get ill in winter?
It seems that having a cold or the flu over winter is just something we accept, but why do we seem more susceptible to illness during the winter? People act with surprise if somebody has the flu in summer or spring, as it’s generally seen as something that only happens in winter. There are a few theories around the ‘why’ we get ill in winter, such as:
More time spent indoors and therefore in closer contact with people who may be ill,
Lower levels of Vitamin D which may contribute to impaired immune function,
Drier air means germs can linger longer – if you’ve ever used public transport in the winter I’m sure you’ve also felt that sense of dread when the train/bus pulls up and you can’t even see the passengers due to the condensation on the windows. For a more detailed explanation behind the ‘why’ see these articles (1)Why Germs Spread in the Winter(2) The Reason for the Season: why flu strikes in winter.
Apart from making you feel terrible, coming down with illness also prevents you from training. This is a major barrier to performance because periods without training lead to a loss of adaptions (gains). Whilst we can recover these adaptions when we start training again, repeated bouts of illness and time off training soon add up. Ultimately, it would be better to avoid illness and instead incorporate planned periods of reduced training. As well as loss of adaptions, time off training can also have a negative effect on our body composition due to reduced energy expenditure (since we’re not training) and reduced diet quality i.e. eating more junk food and treats which are high in calories (it seems ironic that when you’re ill you want to eat less healthy food). Following illness it’s always an uneasy decision as to ‘when’ to return to training, when is too soon? Too early and you could jeopardise your recovery, leave it too long and you’re missing out on training.
I’d argue that people who engage in sports where they spend training time in close proximity to others, such as MMA, boxing, BJJ etc, and even bodybuilders, are at an increased risk of illness so should be taking increased measures to protect their health. If you consider the amount of traffic (people) that pass through gyms, MMA gyms etc, each one could be carrying the flu virus, a cold or some sort of infection. Then you have the issue of people sharing focus pads and touching gym equipment without washing their hands (ever seen Contagion?). Another issue which exaggerates the problem is that after we train our bodies go through a period of decreased immunity, making us even more vulnerable to germs. Endurance athletes don’t typically train indoors in close proximity to others, which is an advantage when trying to avoid illness, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take precautions to protect their health.
What can you do about it?
Focus on these three main points.
1. EAT YOUR RAINBOW.
The best defence against illness is, firstly, a well-balanced diet as this helps prevent deficiencies. Long periods of low-calorie consumption can increase your risk of getting ill. Vitamins such as C and E, as well as minerals such as zinc, iron and copper play a role in supporting the immune system. So it’s important to follow the ‘EAT YOUR RAINBOW’ principle by aiming for a mixture of colours on your plate.
You should aim to include foods rich in polyphenols, such as dark chocolate (70%+), berries and fruits, as well as green tea. Again, focus on a balanced diet and eat your rainbow, particularly in times of high training or life stress
2. MAKE CARBS YOUR FRIEND
During intense, long sessions, taking on 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise will help to prevent the post-training decrease in immune function that I mentioned above.
So, if you’re a fighter, you could make up two 500ml drinks with 30g of carbohydrate in each, and aim to consume these during your session. This would achieve both the carbohydrate intake and help prevent dehydration.
Also, taking on some carbs immediately after training can also help support the immune system.
If you’re concerned about weight-loss and taking on so much carbohydrate, consider lowering the carbohydrate content in the rest of your meals post-training, such as snacks and dinner.
3. PROTECT YOURSELF
Although this may sound obvious, avoid sick people. Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth especially if you are in the gym. Consider taking some anti-bacterial hand gel with you and use in between machines. At first this may seem awkward, but would you rather feel awkward and stay well or get ill?
Avoid public transport where possible. Some people don’t pay particularly good attention to their hygiene, there will always be somebody about who doesn’t cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing.
4. CONSIDER SUPPLEMENTATION
Whilst a food-first approach is better, through the winter is one time you may wish to add supplements to your diet such as a multivitamin (to cover vitamin/mineral bases), Vitamin D (2000iu per day), probiotics and fish oils.
We are at an increased risk of getting ill over winter.
It is worth prioritising your immune health over winter so you can spend more time training.
A balanced diet is key, but consider supplementation too, particularly Vitamin D.
Focus on carbs before, during and immediately after training
Protect yourself. Carry some hand-gel with you, avoid touching your face and densely populated areas.
If you have any questions regarding this post or would like some advice on your nutrition, staying well, or would like an example meal plan, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – Stephen
Bermon et al (2017). Immunonutrition and Exercise. Exerc Immunol Rev.;23:8-50.
Coyle et al (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training.J Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol.