This article will discuss areas of your training and lifestyle that may inhibit your immune system, and will explore how well-structured training, recovery and nutrition can boost your immune system, developing your strength, power and general health; even when those around you are falling ill with coughs and colds!
Can your training have a negative impact on your immune system?
Actually, moderate training will boost your immune system. By ‘moderate’, we’re talking about the aerobic runs at a relatively low heart rate. It is the harder, intense interval sessions that can depress your immune cell function. For example, hard track sessions, hill reps at above race pace, or indeed any training where your heart rate is very high. These can certainly leave your defences open for those germs to grab hold. Therefore from a training perspective, make sure that hard sessions are followed by easier recovery aerobic sessions, or a rest day. Build recovery weeks into your programme. Make sure you are getting adequate sleep and not getting up at silly o’clock to hit hard training sessions on an empty stomach. Listen to your body! Learn when you need to back off.
How to support your immune system with healthy food and sensible lifestyle choices.
It goes without saying that stress has a negative impact on your health. Whilst sometimes stress is unavoidable, structuring time to relax and prevent stress is critical to good health. This means good quality sleep, (leave the electronic gadgets downstairs). Yoga, Pilates, meditation or mindfulness are all great stress-relievers and will have a positive impact on your training.
Making the right food choices will also affect your stress levels, health and performance. Unfortunately, two thirds of the average calorie intake in modern countries comes from fats, sugars and refined flour. Diets low in anti-oxidants can increase the risk of certain cancers, and low levels of calcium and Vitamin D can contribute to the development of Osteoporosis. There are hundreds of chemical reactions that need to take place involving over 30 vitamins and minerals for foods to be successfully absorbed and used. Without these vital micronutrients the body cannot fully unlock the energy and goodness from your food. Yet we still see athletes that eat little (if any!) fruit or vegetables, relying instead on refined carbs and drinking very little water. Then they question why they lack energy, sleep poorly, and are not progressing in their performance! Nutrition is an area with no shortage of debate, differences of opinion and controversy, but the basics really are not rocket science!
So, for now, let’s keep this very simple. Below are a few simple rules that can get you started on the right tracks for eating well.
Coach Fran’s 10 Point Plan – 10 Simple Rules For A Healthy Diet:
- Avoid eating refined carbohydrates (white pasta, white bread, white rice – opt for brown varieties instead)
- Eat lots of green leafy vegetables and root vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, broccoli)
- Limit consumption of sugar, cakes and biscuits
- Eat more beans, lentils, whole grains and foods rich in Omega 3 (helps limit muscle inflammation and that DOMS feeling!)
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit a day (antioxidants help fight off free radicals that can cause cancers and other diseases)
- Limit caffeinated drinks after 4pm (better sleep = improved recovery)
- Minimise consumption of processed meats with chemical additives
- Limit alcohol to 1 glass per day
- Avoid fried, burnt or browned foods, hydrogenated fats and excess animal fats
- Drink 6 glasses of water a day (or herbal/fruit tea or watered down fruit juices)
When should you be eating your meals for optimum performance and recovery?
Ideally, consume a good, well-balanced meal 2-4 hours before a training session so you have the required energy and nutrients. For example, a great start to the day (especially over the winter months) would be a bowl of porridge with high antioxidant fruits such as blueberries, raspberries or blackcurrants. Add on top some flax or chia seeds (both are nutrient-rich, including Omega 3 and antioxidants) plus an optional drizzle of honey to give it a sweeter taste. After exercise, remember the 15-minute rule to replenish those muscles that have been working so hard. A homemade smoothie is perfect. Easy to make, and has everything you need. Milk is fantastic due to its nutritional value and it is ideal for rehydration after hard sessions. Throw in some of those top antioxidant fruits again (Remember, frozen fruit is a lot cheaper!), add a bit of nut oil for extra protein, banana and if you have a sweeter tooth, honey. Alternatively, peanut butter on wholemeal toast and banana is certainly a popular option! Then within an hour a good well balanced meal such as a sweet potato with tuna, and green leafy vegetables.
What if you need to shed a few pounds post-Christmas and are still training hard?
There is no quick fix! A sensible approach to healthy eating is key. Follow the 10-point rules above and do not restrict calorie intake by more than 250 calories a day. Fad diets or limiting calorie intake when training hard will increase cortisol levels and will lead to poorer performance, delayed recovery and a subsequent loss of immune function which will leave you prone to infection and injuries.
By taking on a few simple measures each day, your general health and performance will improve. Just to recap:
- Plan rest and recovery in your training, if you are unsure how to do this, get help from a well-qualified Coach who can plan your training programme with you
- Get plenty of good quality sleep: Aim for around 7-8 hours per night, avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol and electrical devices late at night as these will affect the quality of your sleep
- Avoid stress: If this is unavoidable, build in activities and exercises that can help you manage your stress.
- Eat healthily! Stick to the 10 simple rules and plan the timing of your meals to support your training needs.
If after all of this, you still pick up a bug, learn to listen to your body, and REST! You will recover faster than if you try to keep training through it!
Rest and recovery is key; hard sessions should be followed by easier recovery sessions, or a rest day. 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night is vital to aid recovery and stay healthy
Nutrition is an area with no shortage of debate, differences of opinion and controversy, but the basics really are not rocket science!
Coach Fran’s 10 Point Plan (see above) offers a simple basic framework for healthy food choices
Minimise refined carbs, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and processed meats, and maximise vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and water
Don’t neglect rest; aim for 7-8 hours quality sleep per night, and build recovery days and weeks into your training programme
Avoid stress, or find ways to help manage and control your stress, like Yoga, Pilates, Meditation or Mindfulness