COLD & FLU SEASON TIPS FOR ENDURANCE ATHLETES
It’s that time of year again. After all the traveling, gathering, and celebrating of the holiday season means with Holiday Cheer comes post-Holiday Fear of illness – even for those of us who partook of none of the above. This worry is compounded by the very normal and expected-but-unwanted risk of exercise-induced URS (Upper Respiratory Symptoms) that endurance athletes face year-round. Strenuous training exposes the body to increased risk of illness, and the annual arrival of cold & flu (& now COVID-19) season means there’s plenty of illness to go around.
The past 40 years have seen intense research conducted and published on long-term endurance exercise and changes in your immune system associated with URS (Blocher 2013; Nieman 2019 201, 2019 341; Peake 2017; Walsh 2019). Surveying this research helps explain the causes and complications while providing avenues for athletes to avoid them – or at least mitigate the risk of exposure.
For practical purposes, if you have URS after strenuous, long-term exercise in the cold, you may have some kind of URTI (Upper Respiratory Tract Infection) – or at least be setting yourself up for one. Whether you are knocked out for days afterwards or just feeling suboptimal, the difference is semantic. URS happens throughout the year, but we are all focused on Upper Respiratory health in the winter, so let’s get on with what to do about it.
Scientists have yet again found the obvious: No or too much exercise means more URS and problems. This is shown in Figure 1 by a classic J-shaped curve of URS vs. exercise intensity.
Whether by necessity or personal choice, not all of these items are viable for everyone, so the best recommendation is to pick and choose as many from column B as possible while also avoiding as much of column A as possible. Ultimately, like with meeting the requirements of a training plan, the choice on what you do and don’t do is up to you; however, doing the right things as well not doing the wrong things can add up to better immune function and a healthier you. Learn about cramping and bonking.
TABLE: Ways to Reduce Exercise-Induced URS – Do’s & Don’ts
|AVOID OR STOP DOING THESE||DO THESE|
|Consuming alcohol (especially too much)||Balanced diet with thoughtful portions|
|Close physical contact||Caffeine (coffee, black & green teas, supplements) but not excessive|
|Crowds, enclosed spaces||Carbs, Electrolytes, Hydration during long-term exercise|
|Clubs & gym facilities with poor ventilation||Carbs with protein immediately after exercise (even better with electrolytes & amino acids (glutamine & BCAAs)|
|Sharing drinking or eating implements||Oral zinc acetate lozenges for URTIs (follow directions carefully) – dissolve in mouth, do not swallow whole|
|Internalizing negative life events & emotions||Plenty of fruits and vegetables from diet for polyphenols|
|High doses of Vitamin C (500mg) during exercise||Polyphenols from berries, green tea, curcumunoids, and maybe others|
|High-dose Vitamin E supplements (alpha-tocopherols >100 mg daily)||Probiotics (find one that works for your gut)|
|Nasal zinc products for URTIs or extra zinc supplements (outside of a multivitamin)||Allow sufficient recovery between strenuous exercise sessions|
|Sneezing, spitting, hacking, coughing, blowing snot/phlegm on you or open surfaces||Sleep! (1-10mg melatonin just before bedtime helps sleep quality)|
|NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen) – can use acetaminophen for pain relief but not with alcohol||Techniques to actively manage stress|
|Touching your face (it’s self-inoculation!)||Vitamin C (not before, during, or immediately after exercise) – up to 1,000mg daily while training or 3,000mg daily (3 x 1,000mg) while not training if experiencing URS|
|Training during URS or when ill||Vitamin D supplements – up to 5,000 IU (125mcg) daily|
|Wash hands regularly & effectively (this means with soap, detergents, or disinfectants)|
|Wear masks in public places|
|Yeast Beta glucans, not oat beta glucan (take daily at recommended amounts)|
Blocher JC, Bodland SE, Cox DJ, McFarlin BK, Moriyama H, Shiojima Y. Nutrition intervantions to reduce immune suppression post-marathon. Ch 32 in Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Muscle Building, Endurance, and Strength. Bagchi D, Nair S, Sen CK, Eds., Academic Press, London, UK, 2013, pp. 325-31.
Nieman DC, Lila MA, Gillitt ND. Immunometabolism: a multi-omics approach to interpreting the influence of exercise and diet on the immune system. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2019 Mar25;10:341-63.
Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sports Health Sci. 2019 May;8(3):201-17.
Peake JM, Neubauer O, Walsh NP, Simpson RJ. Recovery of the immune system after exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017 May1;122(5):1077-87.
Walsh NP. Nutrition and athlete immune health: new perspectives on an old paradigm. Sports Med. 2019 Dec;49(Suppl 2):153-68.