No Flu For You!

How to outwit bugs

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

No one likes get­ting sick. But the stakes are par­tic­u­larly high for run­ners, be­cause even mi­nor train­ing dis­rup­tions can leave your goals out of reach. Ear­lier this year, Nor­we­gian sports sci­en­tists pub­lished an anal­y­sis of nine years of train­ing data from their world-beat­ing cross-coun­try ski team. The Olympic or world cham­pi­onship medal­lists in the study re­ported an av­er­age of 14 days per year with symp­toms of res­pi­ra­tory or gas­troin­testi­nal in­fec­tion; the other ath­letes, among the best in the world, re­ported 22 sick days per year. Dodg­ing an ill-timed bug, in other words, might be the dif­fer­ence be­tween podium and also-ran.

There are some ob­vi­ous steps you can take to lower your risk of in­fec­tion in win­ter: wash your hands fre­quently, get plenty of sleep, eat well, stay hy­drated, and so on. There are also some less ob­vi­ous mat­ters to con­sider: US ul­tra run­ner Sage Cana­day finds he’s most vul­ner­a­ble when he heads to a crowded (and germladen) pub­lic space af­ter a long run in cold weather. Keep these mea­sures in mind if you’re train­ing hard now.


In the Nor­we­gian study, ath­letes were five times as likely to re­port symp­toms the day af­ter a flight, and the risk stayed el­e­vated for up to a week. In ad­di­tion, their risk of in­fec­tion tripled the day af­ter a race. As a re­sult of the study, Nor­we­gian skiers are now ad­vised to wait a day af­ter rac­ing be­fore fly­ing home. That may not be prac­ti­cal for ev­ery­one, but the same gen­eral prin­ci­ple ap­plies. Af­ter a race, or af­ter air travel, give your­self at least one easy day be­fore jump­ing back into train­ing. And if you’ve raced and flown, take the next day com­pletely off – and con­sider it not a rest day but an in­vest­ment in your health.


The hard and con­tin­u­ous train­ing that’s re­quired to chase PBS can leave your im­mune sys­tem in a weak­ened con­di­tion. And re­search sug­gests that the length of the run, rather than its in­ten­sity, mat­ters most: in a re­cent study, two hours at a mod­er­ate pace damp­ened im­mune func­tion more than 30 min­utes of in­tense run­ning. Tak­ing in car­bo­hy­drates dur­ing and af­ter long runs can help fight off a rise in im­mune-sup­press­ing stress hor­mones. If you’re run­ning for longer than 90 min­utes, plan to have a sports drink or gel; and af­ter any long or hard work­out, re­fuel with car­bo­hy­drates and pro­tein in a four-to-one ra­tio – a peanut-but­terand-ba­nana sand­wich with a glass of milk, for ex­am­ple.


Even though the Nor­we­gian skiers did their heav­i­est train­ing be­fore their win­ter rac­ing sea­son be­gan, they were most sus­cep­ti­ble to in­fec­tions to­ward the end of win­ter. A pos­si­ble cul­prit is the sea­sonal vari­a­tion in vi­ta­min D, which is pri­mar­ily gained via sun ex­po­sure. A re­cent anal­y­sis con­cluded that to min­imise the risk of in­fec­tions, ath­letes should aim for 75 nmol/l of 25(OH)D (the marker of vi­ta­min D mea­sured in blood tests) rather than the usual tar­get of 50 nmol/l. Fatty fish, eggs and for­ti­fied milk pro­vide some vi­ta­min D, but the re­searchers also rec­om­mend tak­ing 1,000 IU per day of vi­ta­min D3 sup­ple­ments in win­ter.

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