To achieve your athletic potential, you need to train hard and train often. This means walking the fine line between the appropriate amount of training (and life) stress and the positive adaptations it provides and pushing yourself over the edge. The sport science term pushing athletes just past their capacity to improve performance is called functional over-reaching (FOR), it’s what every good strength coach and sport scientist are striving to achieve. Unfortunately, the quest for constant gains means the possibility of stumbling over the line into too much stress (i.e. non-functional over-reaching), or the abyss of overtraining syndrome, when athletes are tired, rundown and progress stalls for months.(1) Incredibly, 70% of high level athletes have experienced or will experience over-training syndrome (OTS) at some point.(2)
Adding to all this complexity is the reality that increasing training volume is strongly associated with increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections (i.e. cold or flu) and upper respiratory symptoms.(3) Interestingly, even if you're athlete experiences pronounced symptoms of an infection - congestion, scratchy throat, fatigue, etc. - they're at similarly increased risk of diminished performance.(4)
Simply keeping your athlete healthy enough to train is a crucial piece of the high-performance puzzle. If you're healthy, you can train. And if you can train more than the competition, you'll have the best chance of winning (all other things being equal).
To fall victim to an infection, two things must happen; your immune system gets compromised and you're exposed to an infection. Let's take a closer looker at 11 factors that can increase your risk of catching a nasty bug.
1. Exercise - As I mentioned above, when your training load increases so too does your risk of URTI.(5) This is unavoidable for high-level athletes as they must follow their periodized training plan to achieve their goals and prep for competition. If you're about to enter an intense training period and you feel a scratchy throat, congestion or fatigue setting in, then shifting your focus to your sleep and nutrition strategies is key to supporting immunity.
2. Mental & Emotional Stress - If you're a person who get stressed out more easily, it actually makes you more susceptible to catching a cold or flu.(6) If you're a type-A personality, experience anxiety-like symptoms or are a general "worrier" than you’re at greater risk of infection as well. Key things to watch out for include fatigue, tension, anger and depression.
3. Sleep - Lack of sleep is major roadblock to a healthy immune system. If you get less than 7 hours of sleep per night your risk of cold and flu increases 3-fold.(7) Prioritize sleep if you're feeling like you're coming down with something (especially if you're hitting the gym hard).
4. Personal Hygiene – It’s not very sexy advice, but it plays a massive role in keeping you cold and flu free. Washing your hands regularly – before every meal and after contact with sick people - and keeping your hands away from your mouth and nose should be your top priority to reduce your risk of infection plummets.(8)
5. Poor Nutrition - If your diet doesn't have enough calories (i.e. energy) to meet the demands of your training, if you're training at high-intensity with low-carbohydrate availability, if your diet is restricted and low in vitamin D, zinc or iron (just to name a few) then you're likely compromising your immune system.(9) Nutrition is a key player for maintaining a robust immune system and reducing frequency and severity of colds and flu.
6. Dental Hygiene - You might not think brushing your teeth is a powerful immune booster, but in fact, it's a reliable method for reducing your risk of infection.(10) If you don't keep your teeth clean, bacteria accumulate in your oral mucosa, especially if you’re eating multiple meals and shakes throughout the day. Brush 2-3x a day to reduce your risk.
7. Sharing Water Bottles - A great motto for life is “Sharing is caring”, just not when comes to athletes and their immunity. Sharing water bottles increases your risk of mononucleosis infection 8-fold!(11) Stick to your own water bottle.. no sharing!
8. Travel – Plane travel can feel like an immunity Armageddon; waiting to succumb to the onslaught of microbes with nowhere to hide. There is always a handful of passengers - sneezing, coughing and touching everything in sight – increasing your risk of exposure to infection.(12) Unfortunately, they're putting you at risk and there isn't much you can do about it. Hand sanitizer, a face mask, and if the person next to you is ill, asking to changes seats are probably your best strategies.
9. Extreme Environments - If you're training at altitude, or in extremely hot and humid environments, your immune system can be impacted. Altitude has been shown to reduce sIgA levels, potentially increasing risk of infection, while hot climates can lead to dehydration and reduced plasma volume, also potentially compromising immunity.(13,14)
10. Drugs - If your athlete or client is taking medications like corticosteroids for arthritis, asthma or allergies, or if they’re taking immune-suppressive medications for an auto-immune condition they may also be more susceptible to colds and flu.
11. Vaccination History - If you're team is traveling abroad and you haven't had all the appropriate vaccinations (i.e. hep C, hep B, flu vaccine) then you're increasing your risk of infection.(15) This is not only a performance problem, but a potentially serious health problem.
These 11 factors are some of the most common reasons why your immune system is compromised, and risk of infection increased. Reducing this risk factors, as best as you can, will go a long way to keeping you cold and flu free this winter (or anytime of the year for that matter!) so you can keep training and keep improving.
What about factors that can positively impact your immunity? Here's a short-list of high-impact factors;
1. Sleep (Listen to Dr. Amy Bender PhD talk sleep strategies in athletes)
2. Nutrition (Check out 21 Foods To Boost Your Immunity)
3. Relaxation (Learn how deep-breathing impacts performance)
4. Periodized Exercise
5. Holidays (When was the last time you actually went on holiday? If you can't remember... you need a holiday!)
Maximize your performance high this winter by minimizing your exposure to colds and flu. Next, add a few fundamental strategies that increase pillars of recovery; sleep, nutrition and mental stress.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MSc(c), CISSN, CSCS