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