Athletes' awareness and interest in immune health is heightened currently by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the rules around strengthening your immune system to avoid infection are no different now than they were before the crisis.
Coaches, health professionals, and scientists agree that our immune systems are benefited, more than they are hindered, over the long-term by exercise. Most recreational endurance athletes check the boxes on the minimum required exercise to strengthen our immune system.
The debate that COVID-19 has raised, relevant to recreational and competitive endurance athletes, is whether or not an intense training session puts you at risk for an upper respiratory tract infection, or any sickness for that matter.
In the past, it has been commonly believed that intense exercise leaves your immune defenses down (by 15-70%) for up to a few days. However, recent research suggests that this negative immune response after intense efforts (such as a big race) are “linked to inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and importantly, pathogen exposure at social gathering events like marathons - rather than the act of exercising itself.”
As a coach, my job is to ensure that athletes are experiencing positive training adaptations, which includes their ability to stay free from infectious disease. After all, being sidelined from your training for a week due to a cold or infection will have a negative impact on your ability to gain fitness and skills across swimming, biking, and running.
So, what is an athlete to do during these times? Should you continue your training as usual? Should you avoid intense training sessions? Should you even be training at all? The answer, as usual, is multifaceted, but there are some basic bases you can cover to ensure you are doing everything in your power to protect your immune health.
You are not spiking your training load (which includes duration, intensity, and frequency of your sessions) with extreme sessions.
You are conservatively ramping up your training load. General rule-of-thumb of no more than a 10% increase per week still applies.
You are taking at least one rest or recovery day per week.
You are hydrating regularly and eating adequately to support your energy expenditures.
You are eating a balanced diet, including carbohydrates to support your glycogen needs during training, protein for tissue repair, and fat for hormonal health support.
You are sleeping 8+ hours per night.
Other factors that stress your immune system, which may not be applicable right now but that you should be aware of include:
Intense training in colder temperatures.
Long-distance travel, and travel across time zones (to races and events).
If you do get sick, or feel flu-like symptoms, it is imperative that you stop your training or significantly back off. Continuing to stress your body, especially if you are experiencing a fever or respiratory symptoms, could have long-term negative impact on your health.
Where can you learn more?
GritLink will be hosting a FREE online discussion about Immune Health for Athletes with three experts in the areas of Nutrition, Training, and Recovery. We will address the following questions, and more -
What supplements should you take to support your immune health?
How do antioxidant foods affect your immunity? Which foods should you eat, and when should you consume them, in relation to your training?
How should you adjust your training if your race was postponed?
Are there specific recovery practices you can begin in order to support your immune health?
The event will take place online on May 5, 2020 at 5:00pm PT. Learn more and RSVP here.