Illness post-event is a common problem for many endurance athletes. However there are many factors other than the load of the event itself, which can lead to getting sick. On this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, Mark Wolff tells you how to give your immune system a fighting chance.
Welcome back to another edition of 32Gi Sports Nutrition. I’m Mr Active, David Katz and it was absolutely fantastic to catch up with 32Gi athlete, Jenna Challenor, following her debut Ultra and running to second at the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon. At the time and for a couple of days after, Jenna sadly did have a bit of a cold. She is back in training, she’s training hard back into her routine.
But this is a common problem that athletes tend to have post-race, especially something of that magnitude, these long endurance events. Be it a long running event, a marathon, a mountain bike event, a Challenge series or Ironman events.
We’ve got Mark Wolff back onto the post. Mark, you’re not only a nutritional guru, you’ve got a lot of experience across the board when it comes to things like this and adapting and dealing with illness. Why do you think first, that people tend to then all of a sudden, their body breaks down a little bit after an event like that?
Mark Wolff: I wouldn’t say it’s only post-event, I think as more stress gets placed onto the body, even leading up to these big events, the immunity is definitely lowered significantly. There’s plenty of ways to try and keep the immune system strong, but it is a fact that there’s a lot of stress indicators that people can look at when it comes to training.
They definitely have a direct impact on the immune system and a lot of people actually land up getting ill, usually as they’re going into a taper and the week before a race sometimes. Because that’s when their bodies have really gone through their heaviest loading peaks and probably the biggest volume periods and that really does lower their immunity.
How being a pre-race hermit is to your benefit
If you get to race day healthy, which is obviously the focus of every athlete, doing an Ultra marathon for example, many athletes are very scared of coming into contact with other people. They try and avoid as much as possible to get to race day healthy. The event itself, it places another additional stress on the body and it’s not just physical stress, it’s also emotional stress. The body goes through a huge amount of stress in an Ultra distance marathon, even if it’s an Ultra distance triathlon, whatever the event is. It goes through a huge amount of physical stress as well as emotional stress.
You’re talking about a lack of sleep, you’re talking about pre-race nerves, you’re talking about the event itself. Then there’s that huge surge past the finish line where everything, all the weeks and months of training is suddenly put behind you. Suddenly what happens is that the immune system is probably even at its lowest.
Generally we find that those first few days post-event, a lot of athletes tend to pick up illness. I wouldn’t say it’s the norm, but I would generally say that it’s definitely lowered immunity and coming into contact with some sort of; either a viral or bacterial infection, and landing up sick.
One of the things that I’ve particularly noticed is that because I travel a lot and spend a lot of time at the different expos around the country; is that I tend to come into contact with a lot of people. A lot of people, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of feet that come through these doors, actually come through these areas quite sick. They come into contact with a lot of the athletes and believe it or not, a lot of athletes before the races, actually pick up bugs at the expo.
Their immune systems are at their lowest, they’re coming into an expo where there’s just crowds of people. There’s families, there’s children, there’s people coughing and sneezing, it’s a closed environment. Generally what you’ll find is that it’s quite interesting to see; I tend to see a trend that quite a few people pick up a little bit of illness slightly before the event, maybe some flu symptoms. Then sometimes it just hits them after the event. If that’s the case, they’re lucky it hits them afterwards and not before.
I, myself, at Two Oceans landed up quite ill. Unfortunately I think I picked up a bug on the flight over, another closed environment, travelling in closed spaces, lots of passengers, somebody gets ill, it can definitely add to the situation. Illness is just one of those things that an immune, when it comes to the immune system of an endurance athlete, you could say that an endurance athlete is a magnet for illness when it comes to the major stresses that they’re putting onto their bodies.
A holistic way to recover post-event
DK: Mark, look, recovery is a whole host of things, but if your system is low and you’ve come through a heavy event around that, what would you recommend then from a recovery? I’m not just talking about nutrition, which obviously we know is very important, but just in general; to give yourself, your body or your immune system the most chance of not picking up something that’s too serious or letting something that’s niggling become worse?
MW: Interestingly enough, nutrition deficiency leads to lowered immunity, can lead to illness. One of the things that I know that runners, specifically runners, that they don’t do a lot, is they do not fuel themselves a lot during training.
When it comes to training, especially maybe more high intensity efforts, when glycogen levels are depleted and no fuelling is put back into the system; we find that does cause, what you can call more stress hormones to go around the body, it definitely causes a lowered immunity.
Then a huge emphasis does have to be placed on the recovery and if you do not recover properly from a session, that’s already going to start tipping the balance when it comes to how strong your immune system is. That’s the first thing to note of.
The second thing is, I always tell athletes to understand and monitor their heart rates. When you wake up in the morning and you’ve got a specific resting heart rate base, or foundation I call it, over a long period of time, it’s very easy to see with elevated heart rate and elevated heart rate can mean a few things. But it can mean that you’ve got illness coming on.
The other thing it can mean is you’re in a period of fatigue or maybe even over-training and sometimes that elevated heart rate is a very good sign to say maybe you shouldn’t be training, maybe you should be resting and recovering today. Because it could lead to even more lowered immunity and even more susceptibility to contracting an illness.
What to look out for when recovering post-event
So those are two things to take note of. As far as the actual race goes, you need to try and get to the race healthy. After the race, if you’re planning on carrying on training and we know a lot of people are moving now from Two Oceans into Comrades.
You might not have raced Two Oceans but that distance definitely puts a big stress on the body. With seven weeks between the two events, you definitely need to come out of that recovering properly and definitely you don’t want to fall ill in this period now.
Most important thing is to actually rest properly and get that immune system strong again and only rest, proper rest is going to get that immune system strong and proper eating is going to get that immune system strong as well.
I always tell athletes, please, if you are carrying on the training, if that was your big race and it’s over, great stuff, go ahead, drink the beer, drink the wine. People like to celebrate with a little bit of alcohol here or there and treat themselves, okay, that’s fine. But if you are planning on carrying on training after an event like that and leading up to another event because you don’t want to take such a big break, it’s very important that you limit these things.
As we know, alcohol, it slows down the recovery process, it pulls fluid out of the muscles where it’s required for recovery because it does dehydrate you and the problem is that you will not recover properly. So you’re going to slowdown that recovery process. Taking in high sugar diet and anything, any kind of food that could cause inflammation or acidity in the body is also going to lower your immunity and make you more susceptible to illness.
It’s all very well to celebrate an event, maybe you’re going to go and have a pizza as a cheat meal or something, but you really need to get back to the grind of eating correctly after that, especially if you’re going to be moving into another major event in a couple of weeks’ time.
How a poor diet can lead to injury
Immune system is really, really key and it’s not just the immune system Dave. We talk about illness but injury is another factor and by not actually taking in the correct nutrients in your diet and causing inflammatory issues, it doesn’t just lead to illness, it actually leads to injury as well.
So muscles not recovering properly it can lead to stress on the joints, it can lead to stress on the tendons. You’re not getting in the nutrients in to recover from session to session and eventually it does, it places a load on the body. If it’s not illness, it’s injury. If it’s not injury, it could be illness.
You’re just putting yourself at risk by not taking care of yourself. There’s a few basic things that you can focus on. I think first of all, keep all the inflammatory fluids as low as possible, try and keep the acid out of the diet as much as possible and there’s lots of nice foods in order to be able to do that.
Make sure you hydrate properly and I’m not talking about highly acidic hydration fluids such as coffee or tea. I’m talking about definitely from a water point of view to hydrate properly and keep it as clean as possible. The better you eat, the better you rest post-event, the far quicker you’ll land up recovering.
You can go and do some mild exercise, obviously, the circulatory system helps with recovery by getting the blood flowing around the system and getting the much needed nutrients and obviously freshly re-oxygenate and re-enrich blood cells back to where they’re required, that also helps as well. But really take the time to build yourself and get stronger again because placing the body into endurance sport definitely places it under severe stress.
DK: Mark, you mentioned something about loading the system, I think that’s very important. I’ve got a great question on that for you, but we’ll save it for next week. That’s all we have for you today on 32Gi Sports Nutrition, thanks for joining Mark Wolff and myself, Mr Active, David Katz.