Strengthening the immune system against the Corona virus.

‘Ring a ring a roses,

A pocket full of poseys,

Atishoo, atishoo

We all fall down’

This rhyme originated at the time of the Black Death in the 1300s. The Black Death was a global epidemic of bubonic pneumonia with symptoms of sneezing. Flowers are now out as protection. Hand sanitizer and loo roll are in apparently, along with the odd dose of black humour, to protect against the coronavirus.

But what else can we do?

We can continue the normal measures for our everyday persona such as hand washing and social isolation. We have all read more than enough about that I’m sure.  So this article considers what we can do within our athletic personas to maintain good health.

All advice indicates it would be wise to proceed with caution. Training sessions can suppress our immune system which makes us more vulnerable to illness. This is most likely to happen when ‘sessions are prolonged, of moderate to high intensity and performed without food intake.’ (Gleeson M) Interestingly ‘long’ is being talked of as anything over two hours so take particular care around your longer bike rides as the weather gets better. If we get ill in the current situation most of us should recover relatively quickly but we could easily pass the coronavirus on to someone else, who may become seriously ill.

It is a game of minimizing risk.

Things that can minimize our risks-

-Sleep well if you can. Naps are good. Respiratory illnesses are more prevalent in those who regularly sleep for less than seven hours a night, or who awake regularly.

-Stay hydrated. Drink lots of fluid before, during and after exercise. Adding an electrolyte tablet once a day will ensure some of the important micro nutrients we need are included in our diet. If exercising for over an hour aim to take in about 500ml of water, or liquid fuel, per hour.

-Limit stress, which may be easier said than done. High levels of stress leads to the production of cortisol – useful at the start of a race. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone, it is produced by your adrenal glands and is best known for helping fuel the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. If the body is over stressed constantly cortisol is over produced and your immune system will be depressed.  If you find yourself waking wired at three in the morning that may be a cortisol overload due to stress and it’s more than time to dial things back. Unless you’ve been on the beers which may also have this effect! We only have one personal stress bucket so if the stress from life is high the amount of training stress we can absorb safely decreases therefore training hours and intensity need to be moderated to take this into account. Think positive, one day at a time, and seek help in whatever form that needs to take if the stress bucket is getting too full.

-Limit alcohol consumption. This is an immune depressant and reduces the quality of sleep.

-Eat very well. If you can find any vegetables in the supermarket eat lots, and increase your fruit intake. Five fruit and vegetable portions a day as a minimum, more if possible. Remember that drinking caffeine within half an hour of ingesting vitamin C means absorption of both vitamin C and iron is reduced. There is mixed scientific evidence to say that vitamin C supplements over the daily recommended intake have any benefit, any excess is simply  peed out, not stored, so perhaps just eat well and save your money.

One supplement which is worth investing in is vitamin D. Most of us living north of Paris are deficient from October to March as the rare sunlight is not strong enough for us to synthesize vitamin D ourselves. Vitamin D contributes to our immune system as well as our bone, teeth and muscle health.

It may be worth ingesting Lactobacillus probiotics on a daily basis. These are live bacteria which modify the gut bacteria population and have a positive effect on the immune system. They have been shown to benefit athletes, although more research is needed, and are particularly beneficial after antibiotic treatment which destroys the gut bacteria. Go for that yogurt.

Garlic, chilli and ginger are all know to have antiviral and antibacterial effects – great reasons to support your local curry provider.

Carbohydrates are vital to a strong immune system so this is perhaps not the best time to diet. As a guideline 60% or more of your daily food intake should be composed of carbohydrates, ideally good quality. Sticking to this even on rest days enables your body to top your glycogen reserves back up. When riding for over an hour your body needs 40 to 60 grams of carbohydrate an hour to maintain the immune system and support fast recovery. There is now research showing that this should be mixed with small amounts of protein and fat. A banana is approximately 20g of carb, one jelly baby 5g and most chewy bars somewhere between 20 and 40g.  There are many recipes around for home made snacks with less emphasis on pure sugar, and savoury snacks work just as well if you can be bothered to manage sandwiches or cold potatoes on a bike. Carbohydrate drinks are between 20 and 40g per bottle. The chance for a non-stop picnic. It is also important to ingest carbohydrate and protein soon after finishing exercise so that your body can recover fast. Women have a very short window for this, they should eat within half an hour of finishing, men still metabolise efficiently up to two hours afterwards. If reduced exercise causes you concern about putting on weight consume fewer calories at mealtimes but continue to eat during and after exercise to support recovery and maintain best health.

Forget fasted training for the moment. Fasted training for either sex places the body under greater stress.  Research suggests that fasting before exercise encourages the body to burn energy stored as fat more readily before needing high levels of glycogen which is beneficial for endurance athletes, making them more efficient. This is different to a calorific deficit being aimed at in order to lose weight.  However fasting for females tends to increase cortisol production and this promotes fat storage which is generally not desirable. Fasting also increases the stress on the immune system.

Monitoring your health like a hawk can pay dividends at the moment, although we can easily think ourselves ill. Perhaps a good way of keeping a balance is to take your pulse every morning for a minute before getting out of bed. This will give you the knowledge of what your normal resting heart rate is. Any elevation in this indicates that your body is under some kind of stress. It may be that it needs to recover from a hard session, life may be catching up with it or your body may be fighting off an illness you are as yet unaware of. A raise of a few beats may not be that significant but if you are getting to around ten beats a minute over normal a few quiet days may just give your immune system time to do its job and return you to full health. Another way of monitoring early signs of ill health or over training is by measuring Heart Rate Variability through an app such as ithlete.

If you get really keen Forth Edge are now selling blood testing kits highlighting immune system health.

Two last minute thoughts –

Some studies suggest that the polyhpenols present in non alcoholic beer can reduce the incidence of the common cold.

And stop picking your nose!

Happy cycling, stay well.

Blog Sufferfest and apex coaching

Blog Simon Ward, triathlon coach

Coronavirus and athletes: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Peak Performance, Andrew Hamilton

Defend yourself with science: immune boosting nutrients to stay well this winter Peak Performance Andrew Hamilton

Forth Edge blood testing company


Immune system adaptation in elite athletes, research paper, Michael Gleeson

Roar Stacey Sims

Sports Nutrition Anita Bean

Sports Nutrition: strengthening your immune system Peak Performance, Andrew Hamilton

Why we sleep Matthew Walker

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