Keeping Healthy

As we enter the crucial phase of our winter training programme we become more susceptible to picking up coughs, sniffles, sore throats and other contagious infections from others.  There are, however, a few defence strategies we could be deploying to make sure we stay healthy; this factsheet will explain them.  The closer you stick to them the more chance they can help keep you riding this winter. 

The Warning
If you train hard (a stressor), in mixed company (an infection risk), while tired (another stressor) without adequate hydration (another infection risk), sooner or later you will succumb. 

How do you get an infection?
For the sake of this factsheet we'll assume the two most relevant options and ignore all other innuendos! 

One way of becoming infected is through exposure to higher than normal rates of germs and bacteria; children (sick ones), office workers, air conditioning, pubs & clubs etc.  Another way is through our own defences becoming lower than normal and working at less than their optimal level.  This allows normal exposures levels to have an affect where previously you, or your immune system, would have bravely fought them off.  

Obviously a combination of the two gives us a double whammy.  Having lower defences than normal and sitting in an office full of coughing, sneezing, dribbling colleagues is a "common-cold" waiting to happen.  We breath in what they breath out, an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is normally our starter for ten. 

Training & Immune Suppression
When we train our body becomes slightly run down.  When we train hard it becomes more run down.  And when we train very hard our defences are run down to such an extent that an "infection window of opportunity" can be opened for anything from three to seventy-two hours.  Obviously if we undertake two or three heavy sessions a week our body rarely has time to close this window and minimise the infection threat.  Something has to give.

Training a little strengthens our immune system.  Training quite a bit increases it significantly.  Training too much weakens it considerably with obvious results.

The diagrammatic representation below shows the classic J curve with training intensity mapped against risk of infection.  It shows there is a cross over point at which we become more susceptible to, but not exclusively, URTI infections.

Sedentary individuals (left) have a medium risk of incurring an infection because their defences are low.  Mild exercise (middle) primes the defences and offers a lower risk of contracting an infection.  Moderate to heavy exercise (mid-right) reduces immune levels and gives the same risk as our couch-potato colleague.  And heavy to extreme exercise (far-right) gives the body such a hammering that few resources are available to fight infection should one be contracted; maximum risk.

Documentary Olympic evidence shows that 13% of Marathon participants suffered URTI in the week after completing their event.  In a parallel control group that had the same pre-event training programme, but didn't compete, only 2% contracted an infection.

Training hard causes us to breath through our mouth, which dries it out.  We also spend an inordinate amount of time, when riding in the winter, removing blockages from our nose and throat.  The mucus and saliva in our nose and mouth are our infection protection systems.  During our long winter rides we spend most of our time destroying or expelling these protective systems.  Is it any wonder we become susceptible to infections?

Minimising the Risks
There are choices we can make to help our body defend itself from the winter onslaught.  Here are some of them.

No one likes their food more than a cyclist but quantity isn't everything.  Eating a healthy and balanced diet will help our body prepare its defences more appropriately. 

High carbohydrate diets are great for training purposes but, if we're not careful, our diet may lack the nutrients, minerals and vitamins we need to keep us healthy. 

Up protein intake, up vitamin C intake and eat plenty of fruit.  Keep topped up on the ride, don't get hungry and don't risk the bonk.  See the Digestive Process factsheet for more info.

The cumulative physical stress of repeated hard training sessions can slowly nibble away at our immune systems.  Without proper scheduled recovery sessions we also increase our level of stress hormones which just adds to the pressure on our body to fight off infection.  A battle it will ultimately lose.  Structure your training and structure your recovery; especially if you're a veteran or new to the sport. 

There are now loads of recovery drinks, bars and supplements on the market.  They're not all a waste of money.  Find one that works and use it, even if it's only during the "flu epidemic" risk period.

Our clothing can harbour all sorts of germs, bacteria and risks. 

Don't get in from a long ride on Saturday then place your gloves on the radiator, ready to be nice and warm for your Sunday ride.  The germs and nasal bacteria left over from your ride will sit, incubate and multiply a squillion times overnight. 

Don't get up in the morning, still recovering from the day before then go out, get hot, get sweaty and wipe your nose or eyes on the gloves with yesterday's "stuff" still on them!  Get them washed and stay healthy.

Shorts are another area of potential infection.  It's really easy to "save" Saturday's pair for Sunday.  We've all done it at some time or another;  don't.  It's the same with bottles.  Don't leave them on the bike Saturday and top them up on Sunday.  Take them off, put the tops in the dishwasher and clean the insides with Milton baby bottle cleaning stuff. 

You may get away without doing all this in the summer and the odd time you may forget, but you won't in the winter.  Especially if it's a regular routine.  One day you'll get caught and get caught bad.  It's bad enough fighting off everyone else's bacteria and germs without adding to the problem by creating your own.

We all need sleep; it's part of the body's restorative and rebuilding process.  Loads of physiological things happen when you sleep which we wont go in to just now; but if you want to train well and stay healthy you need your sleep. 

Everyone is different so we're not going to be prescriptive and say you need 8 hours a night.  Be aware of your training and the demands you put on your body.  Ensure adequate rest and recovery and give your body the sleep it deserves. 

If you wake up to go and do your big weekend ride really tired, go back to sleep for an hour and go out an hour later.  Your training session will be of a higher quality and it'll pay dividends in the long run.

As we said earlier, the mucus in your nose and the saliva in your mouth are your body's defence mechanism against infection.  Training in cold weather while breathing heavily will quickly dry out these defences and increase your susceptibility to infection.  Drink little and drink often to preserve fluid levels; not all of it goes to your muscles.

Cafe Stops
You are most vulnerable to infections within the first couple of hours of finishing your exercise.  Which is why the cafe stop is not always such a good idea. 

Sitting in a crowded room when you're hot and sweaty, with people you don't know, then putting damp clothes on to ride home in the cold, is a risk you could easily eliminate.  I know cafe stops are a big part of the social scene, but there is a consequence for every decision.  It's all a matter of choice.

If you look after yourself in the ways mentioned you should be alright.  However, if you are in a riskier environment then it's better to be safe than sorry.  Echinacea is a supplement a lot of people take as a preventative option.  If you're in an office full of sneezing machines or sit near an air conditioning vent then this could be a better option than a face mask! 

Vitamin C is another favourite.  Obviously getting it from fruit sources is better than a tablet but sometimes nature needs a hand.  Vitamin C also helps the absorption of iron from your diet; which is a good thing. 

Neovite has been reported as helping but it's expensive.  Pumpkin seeds are an age old remedy, which are cheap and Vitamin B helps in the production of antibodies.  Vitamin E is also regarded as a "muscle-damage" limiter that may aid recovery during bouts of heavy training.  The quicker you recover the less the "window of infection opportunity" is open, the healthier you will stay.

If you really want to give your body a helping hand lay off the caffeine and alcohol.  Save it for race day.  The caffeine, not the alcohol!

Personal Hygiene
Virus infections can be transmitted by air but are more commonly caught by touch.  The most important thing you can do to stay healthy is to make sure you wash your hands thoroughly four or five times a day when at work.  You may be more susceptible and at risk than you think.

If someone coughs, and politely puts their hand over their mouth, you may be protected.  But when they shake your hand to leave?  Or, someone sneezes in to their hanky, then puts it in their pocket and leaves your office.  You might escape infection.  If, however, you leave the room just after them and open the door they've just opened, what was on their hand is now on yours, the same as with our coughing friend.  It only takes a wipe of your eye or a touch of your mouth and you're caught.

The Message
So there we are, a few hints and tips to help you stay healthy.  Not an exhaustive list I grant you but some key common sense pointers that cover the major reasons for catching colds.

Getting ill now could seriously disrupt your early season preparation which isn't good.  Some may be tempted to "train-through" any illness or virus in attempt not to lose any hard gained fitness, that's bad, very bad.  Heavy training while suffering any illness could seriously disrupt your WHOLE season.  Lose a week now or lose three months later?  Not a difficult decision is it? 

Stay away from sick people, wash your hands, bottles and clothes as often as possible, eat and drink well, take supplements if you feel especially vulnerable and give the cafe stop a miss until the "cold season" is over. 

Healthy riding.