A drop in the mercury, shorter days, darker mornings, sniffling colleagues, winter has come. Those sniffles lead to lost training days wrapped under the blankets and even a few flu-like symptoms are enough to impact performance and recovery.
Regular exercisers are more prone to illness. A 10% increase in training load can increase the risks of the common cold by 10%. Athletes are likely to pick up some form of upper respiratory illness two to four times per year, with endurance athletes most likely to get sick. Stress, both physical (i.e. exercise) and psychological (i.e. that deadline) can increase the likelihood of illness and the environment we create impacts this. A cold is 40% more likely in competitive and amateur athletes compared to top level international athletes, possibly due to the resources and support received at the top.
We all have our quick fixes and mother’s remedies but prevention will always trump cure. At the heart of this are some important nutritional elements. Let food be thy medicine.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first; a plant-based diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables will help your body function optimally but as athletes there are a few other old and novel techniques we can tie into this.
- Restrictive diets
If you are cutting calories you are more likely to get sick. Try to balance your intake to the demands of training. If you are trying to lose weight do so with a moderate deficit and keep your protein intake up. Sufficient protein helps reduce immunosuppression after long or hard efforts. Aim for at least 20-25 g of protein, the equivalent of 3 eggs, 70 g chicken, 200 g yoghurt or 1 scoop protein powder.
Low carb diets and fasted training increase the likelihood of issues too. Carbohydrate intake, particularly during exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes, can help keep your immune function firing so use your fuels wisely.
Low fat diets might leave you low on omega 3 fats (the healthy kind that assist inflammation) and low in important fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
Low fluid levels can reduce the production of saliva which is an important first line defence. Sip on your fluids, get your hydration strategy together and consider a chewing gum or lozenge (maybe with a little zinc) to assist here.
While we are on that point, zinc is one of the micronutrients associated with good immune function and some athletes might be deficient. Good dietary sources include oysters, red meat, chicken, beans and nuts. To help treat the common cold 75mg of supplemental zinc might help reduce the number of days spent in bed too.
A healthy gut environment also assists the first line defence and should be a focus of anyone with frequent colds and flus. Yoghurt (with live cultures), fermented food (pickles, sauerkraut, tempeh) or a probiotic supplement containing lactobacilli strains would be useful additions to the diet.
- Vitamin D
Not only do we get less sun in winter but the associated drop in vitamin D production increases the risks of common colds three- to fourfold. A simple blood test can determine your vitamin D status and a winter supplement may be needed. Dietary sources such as eggs, salmon or fortified foods can help (see our vitamin D enriched chocolate milk recipe to add to your recovery).
While not directly linked to your nutrition it is worth asking yourself “Am I getting enough?” Sleep is one of the most important tools to help the body rest and recover and insufficient sleep is linked to poor immune function. If any dietary habits such as too much caffeine, or skipping breakfast is negatively impacting your sleep it might be time to make some changes.
DIY Recovery Drink
60 g skimmed milk powder (vitamin A and D fortified)
10-30 g castor sugar
5 g cocoa powder
450-700 ml water
Blend all ingredients together after a hard exercise effort. Use more or less sugar based on your needs.
Nutritional Info: protein 21 g, carbohydrate 42-63 g, fat 1.7 g