WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE SUCCESSFUL ONES STAY HEALTHY
It’s no secret that one of the hardest things to achieve in getting to the start line of an fulldistance race (or any triathlon, really) is staying both fit and healthy. It’s also no secret that, in order to complete such a gruelling event, you need to put in the “hard yards.” This might mean sacrificing some sleep, pushing yourself when you really don’t feel like it and often stretching yourself thin between training and other life commitments, such as family and work. All of this takes a toll and, while physical exercise in general boosts health markers and immune status, it is easy to teeter over the edge and compromise immune function.
Here’s what you need to know about exercise and immune function so that you can optimize your health going into a race and minimize your chances of coming down with a dreaded cold during race week.
After a particularly hard session or race, or in high mileage weeks (aka full-distance training), circulating hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline suppress white blood cell function. This leaves the immune system weakened, increasing the risk that viruses and bacteria can gain a foothold – especially upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds, sinusitis and tonsillitis. When you throw in other demands, such as stress from work or family, lack of sleep and time for recovery, and the load on the body and immune system accumulates. If you are someone who regularly travels for work, travels for races, or is frequently exposed to large crowds and contact with other people, then that risk of infection soars even higher.
What can you do?
• Good nutrition is key to supporting immune function. Most of the body’s immune defences are located in the gut, so it makes sense that what we put in there plays a major role.
• Some specific nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins A, D, E, B6 and B12, have been shown to be particularly important in maintaining immune status. From a practical food-on-your-plate perspective, this means paying attention to quality sources of protein, as well as plenty of colour and variety from various fruits and vegetables.
• If it is wintertime, and you aren’t getting much sunshine, then you may also want to look at vitamin D supplementation. During summer, this shouldn’t be an issue for triathletes training in the sunshine, since most of the vitamin D we need we absorb directly from sunlight.
• Probiotic foods have also been shown to be beneficial in maintaining health. Look for fermented foods with live probiotics, such as yogurts, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir and pickled vegetables.
• Consume adequate carbs during longer/harder sessions to help mitigate overtraining symptoms, which place greater stress on the body and tend to further depress white blood cell function.
• Sleep, stress and recovery. Sleep is the best recovery tool for any athlete. Adequate rest is critical for restoring hormonal and immune function. Plus,
if you do find yourself coming down with a cold, then a couple of days of good recovery – including sleep and good nutrition, should help you bounce back relatively quickly.
• Basic hygiene: Practice good hand washing and food hygiene. Avoid sharing personal items, such as drink bottles and towels. Avoid close contact with others who are, or have been, sick. If possible limit exposure to large crowds, especially in the two hours after a hard session.
Foods to boost immune function for triathletes in hard training
Pack your plate with these nutritional powerhouses to help keep your race preparation on track and ward off illness and infection.
• Yogurt and kefir are good for gut health and offer immune-boosting probiotics.
• Garlic contains the active ingredient allicin, which fights infection and bacteria.
• Oats and barley contain beta-glucan, a type of fibre, which has been shown to have particular antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities.
• Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, important in boosting white blood cell function.
• Tea provides a punch of antioxidants and polyphenols, while adding to fluid intake – hydration is another key to staying healthy and fighting infection.
• Beef, lamb and egg yolks are all great sources of zinc, which is critical for the development of white blood cells that recognize and destroy invading bacteria and viruses.
• Sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkin provide vitamin A for cell structure and strength.
• Research shows mushrooms may increase the production and effectiveness of white blood cells.
• Salmon, sardines and other fatty fish are a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, essential for reducing inflammation and also help to protect from colds and respiratory infections.
BLUEBERRIES ARE FULL of fibre and antioxidants such as vitamin C and, lucky us, they’re in season. Pair with juicy lemon and sweet local honey and you’ve got a fresh and bright combination that will wake you up and keep you happy. These power pancakes are the ultimate breakfast before a day of training. They’re full of protein, fibre, healthy fats and, of course, the star of the show: blueberries. Make a batch for the whole family to enjoy.
NUTRITION FACTS PER PANCAKE
Calories Fat Cholesterol Sodium Potassium Fibre Sugar Protein
6–8 PANCKAES (DEPENDING ON SIZE)
1 cup plain Greek yogurt ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest
3 tbsp coconut oil, melted and cooled
2 tbsp honey ¼ cup milk
(any milk will do)
1 ¼ cup whole wheat flour 1 tsp baking powder Pinch sea salt ½ cup fresh blueberries
1. Mix together flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. In another bowl, whisk together eggs, yogurt, lemon juice, lemon zest, coconut oil, honey and milk. Add to dry ingredients all at once. Stir until almost combined. Fold in blueberries until everything is mixed together.
4. Let cook until pancakes start to bubble and edges are no longer shiny. Flip. Cook another one to two minutes.
5. Top with fruit and yogurt or real maple syrup and enjoy your all-day energy.
PRE-RACE AND WARM-UP
The big difference between pro athletes and age-group competitors is that the pros literally make their living from the sport. With that in mind, they can’t afford to leave anything to chance. Attention to detail is critical when it comes to setting up your transition area so that you can literally change from one sport to the next in a matter of seconds. For the pros competing at the WTS level, a second or two lost in transition could mean the difference between making a pack or not, which could ultimately determine their final position in the race. There aren’t too many triathletes who wouldn’t like to chop a few seconds off their time with a better transition. And if you’re out a bit quicker, even in a non-drafting race, you might find yourself competing with a slightly faster group of athletes, which will help you go faster, too.
So take some time to watch the pros set up their transition before they head down to the water to warm up. Watching the warm-up process can be very enlightening, too. Since the start and the swim are so critical in draft-legal racing, it’s amazing to watch how much time the pros spend warming up before their start. They’ll also do lots of dives and short sprints to ensure they’re ready to go as soon as the gun goes off. While most age-group athletes won’t take part in a dive start, many would benefit from a more extensive warm-up. Watching how the pros do it can provide some helpful tips.
Even if there are some awesome masters swimmers in your group, they’re probably not as fast as the top swimmers you’ll see in Montreal. How often do you get to see an excellent stroke? How often do you get to see an excellent stroke in open water? The same goes for the bike, where you’ll have the opportunity to watch the athletes go by numerous times on the multi-lap course. How fast do they pedal? How do they position themselves in the pack?
Once out on the run course you’ll be amazed at just how fast the pros move, looking more like track runners than triathletes as they come off the bike and take on the 10 km course. This is where amateur athletes can probably glean the most in terms of technique. Watch how the best hold their arms. Look for the forward lean that so many of the best maintain throughout the race. Keep an eye on the turnover – it’s almost guaranteed to be faster than you imagined.
ENJOY THE RACING
As much as you can learn from watching the pros, it’s also just plain exciting to see the best in the world compete. The race in Montreal last year was the only race Flora Duffy entered in 2017 that she didn’t win after Ashleigh Gentle’s incredible run powered her to the win. The men’s race was every bit as exciting because Javier Gomez took the men’s race by running away from the rest of the field, too.—KM
Pip Taylor is a professional triathlete and nutritionist from Australia.