It's a razor-thin line that cyclists walk between being extremely lean and fit on the one edge, and the precipice of overtraining and increased risk of infections and illness on the other. With flu season upon us, here are a few things you should know about the flu season to avoid sickness this offseason.
Welcome to Flu Season
Of course, the flu and other infections are not restricted to the colder months and can lay the best-laid fitness plans to a crashing halt at any time of the year. Good hygiene and boosting your immune system are critical throughout the year.
Not to sound like mom, but many of the things you can do to minimize the risk of infections fall into the exceedingly obvious category.
1. Do not share. Don't use water bottles, sunglasses, helmets—anything that has been licked or sweated on—without thoroughly disinfecting.
2. Keep your hands clean. Stop and try to count how frequently your hands touch your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth. That should help you to realize how often you should be washing your hands.
3. Food safety. Be careful about your food choices and make sure to thoroughly wash and rinse fruits and vegetables before cutting, cooking, or eating.
4. Beware of the mob. Any parent knows that kids are the perfect storm for infections. Kids are exposed to germs in daycare, school, sports, and community activities. Because of this, it's not bad to be paranoid and make use of hand sanitizers whenever the thought strikes you, especially when picking up or dropping off your kids.
5. The travel bug. Travel to vacation or races often means cramming to tie up loose ends before the weekend, long hours of driving or flying, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition. In the offseason, with the possibility of travel for Thanksgiving and the approaching holidays, stress is compounded with exposure to a whole new eco-systems of germs. Flying or other means of mass transport are a perfect recipe for sickness, with a whole host of strangers suddenly plopped together and breathing the same recycled air. This is the time to take extra precautions, especially when it comes to hygiene awareness, eating healthy, drinking lots of fluids, and getting extra rest.
Infections and the Athlete
It shouldn't be a surprise that a sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity is a major predictor of increased risk for infections and illnesses. What may be really galling to athletes is that they are often at similar, if not greater, risk for infections as the couch potato. The achieve the right balance of exercise and rest, moderate levels of physical activity and fitness is recommended during the peak seasons—similar to that of a recreational athlete exercising moderately three times a week.
An increase in training volume and intensity beyond this moderate level, the immune system gets depressed and the resistance to infections can decrease to levels at or below that of a sedentary individual. One study showed that 24 percent of ultra marathoners completing a 160 km running event experienced a significant episode of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection (URTI) in the following week.
While most of us are not doing exercise to such extremes, the take home message is that most of us should consider ourselves athletes in the game of life. Corporate athletes can often face much more total stress than even top professional athletes. Even 10 to 12 hours of training a week, when squeezed in alongside a demanding job and family responsibilities, can become astronomical. It's good advice for many of us to always be on the lookout for ways to actively increase our recovery and decrease our stress.
The Weak Week
Besides extreme physical activity, the other strong predictor of an increased risk of infection is recent activity level. A single intense bout of exercise, as with the ultra marathon example above, can lead to an acute depression of immune factors. This can cause an "open window" of suppressed immunity, which exists for 48 to 72 hours following an intense effort.
Plan on using more caution than you normally would during periods immediately after races or very hard training blocks. If you don't, you run a risk of an unplanned sickness messing up your training plans.
I'm Sick—Now What?
The big question, of course, is what to do when you still inevitably get sick. Do you maintain your training regardless, modify your program, or just rest until you're better again? Most of cyclists tend to be the type of people who hate sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. We lean toward continuing a training plan rather than just resting. This can make a cold turn into something that's more severe. When in doubt, it's almost always better to go against our natural instincts and rest more rather than trying to train through it.
Think of it this way—it's extremely rare that our cold or flu is going to get worsewith rest. The same can rarely be said of the opposite scenario, and the odds of getting yourself sicker and more run-down—and therefore losing even more long-term fitness—are usually higher with continued training through an illness. So when in doubt, give yourself a break and give your body extra time to recover and the resources it needs to fight the infection and get back to health.
In the meantime, I'm off to wash my hands.
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