Is training making you sick?

I am sick…again! I consider myself an extremely healthy person. No major illnesses or surgeries in my entire life. With the exception of three stitches in my chin and a fractured elbow, all of which occurred before 5th grade, I have never had anything wrong with me. So why am I sick all the time? Prior to starting to run seriously and compete in triathlons I would go years without colds. The only exception is when I lived in the dorms at Georgia Tech and had strep throat about once a quarter. When I stopped sharing a bathroom with 20 girls I was miraculously cured.

Does training make you sick? It seems like every time I ramp up the training hours I get smacked down by a cold. I feel like I am eating healthy and my sleep has been pretty good these past few weeks. So why do I feel like I got hit by a truck? Our weekends have been hectic lately and there has been lots of interacting with crowds (Iron Mullet St Patrick’s Day concert and GA marathon finish line). I guess the combination of increased workload + stressed system + new germs = sick.

From the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (that sounds made up to me):

Although moderate exercise may help protect athletes from sickness, training for too long at too high an intensity appears to make athletes more susceptible to illness.

Laboratory research shows that athletes exercising at a high intensity for 90 minutes or more experience a steep drop in immune function that can last up to 24 hours. The drop in immune function appears to be caused by the elevation of stress hormones released during and following heavy exertion. This is what exercise immunologists believe allows viruses already in the body to spread and gain a foothold.

Now what? I am itching to get back to my Crossfit routine but I know my fatigue level will make that completely pointless. I have run, biked and swam with a cold but not sure I could handle the intensity of CF right now. I am still in the achy, snotty, miserable stages right now so almost anything seems like a major chore. The medical term is malaise – isn’t that a great word? the official definition is this:  a generalized feeling of discomfort, illness, or lack of well-being. That’s me right now! I am working but only because I have no choice. Having to blow your nose a hundred times a day and constantly having to change nasty gloves is not the least bit fun.

Here are the recommendations from the same folks at the Gatorade Institute:

If the symptoms are from the neck up (e.g., nasal congestion from the common cold), moderate, supervised exercise should be acceptable.

When symptoms are spread throughout the body, such as a fever, chills or muscle aches associated with the flu, the safest approach is to avoid all exercise until the symptoms are completely gone. At that point, a slow return to a normal exercise routine should be followed.

Never attempt to “sweat out” a feverish illness with intense exercise. In some athletes, exercising when sick can lead to a severely debilitating condition known as post-viral fatigue syndrome. Symptoms include weakness, increased fatigue, frequent infections and depression and can persist for several months or even years.

Finding Their Threshold

Based on current knowledge, good immune function can be maintained by eating a well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of fluids, keeping life stresses to a minimum, getting adequate sleep, training at the appropriate intensity levels and allowing enough time for recovery from exercise.

While some athletes have robust immune systems that can handle substantial training workloads, others may break down at much lower levels. With the help of their coach, each athlete should find their own training threshold and avoid pushing into the zone of immune suppression and increased rates of sickness.

Practical Guidelines to Lower Infection Risk

To lower the risk of immune suppression and sickness, athletes should follow these practical recommendations:

  • Keep life stresses to a minimum.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet to keep vitamin and mineral pools at optimal levels.
  • Use carbohydrate beverages before, during and after race events or heavy training bouts. Studies show that ingestion of carbohydrate beverages during prolonged and intense exercise keeps blood sugar levels up and stress hormones low, resulting in better immune system functioning.
  • Avoid overtraining and chronic fatigue.
  • Get adequate sleep on a regular schedule.
  • Avoid rapid weight loss.
  • Avoid putting hands to the eyes and nose (a primary route of introducing viruses into the body).
  • Athletes competing during the winter months should get flu shots.

So, basic stuff I already know. I guess I will just hunker down, rest and hopefully get back to it soon. I have a 10 mile trail race Sat night so I am hoping to be back to 100%. Let’s hope this is the last of the season!


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