Wednesday, February 11, 2009

If I'm So Fit Why Am I Sick?


by Dr. Stephen Cheung, Ph.D.

You’re probably into cycling/triathlons because you enjoy being fit and healthy. So why is it that you’re always sniffling around with a cold bumming a Kleenex off your friends and doing a “Godfather” impersonation with a raspy sore throat? Sport science guru Dr. Stephen Cheung gives us the cold facts on fitness and immunity and what we can do to stay out of sick bay and on the bike…

How tough is racing in Nova Scotia? Well, the winters are so severe that our traditional first race of the season was April 27, the same day as L-B-L, the last big spring classic in Europe! And to give us the full Euro experience, it was about 5oC, windy, and pounding rain the entire 85 km race. Thanks to my research background in extreme temperatures, I was smart enough to dress up like Bib the Michelin Man (longsleeve polypro, thermal jersey, two shortsleeve jerseys, plus a winter jacket!) and ended up a big soggy sponge but at least not cold.

After the race, I immediately changed into dry clothes and kept a hat on my head. However, I woke up the next morning with a tickle in my throat that has gotten worse and has stayed with me all week, making me tone down my training plans. What happened and why?

The Cold Facts on Immunity

Well, whoever it was that said moderation in all things was the best path is certainly right. The effects of exercise on our immune system is one of the hottest fields in exercise science, with literally an exponential explosion of research over the past decade.

The consensus conclusion is that a little bit of exercise and fitness is terrific for strengthening your immune system, but either too little or too much both have the effect of weakening your immunity and increasing the risk of contracting minor infections like colds and the flu. Your white blood cells, lymphocytes, and NK (Natural Killer) cells that are the blood-borne equivalents of Woody Harrelson fight off foreign substances and germs, and they all increase in concentration in your blood with a bit of exercise. However, the average cyclist goes well over what scientists regard as moderate exercise and land squarely in the danger zone of weakened immunity. It doesn’t help that many pro and amateur cyclists train so much with not enough recovery that they are chronically on the edge of overtraining, but that’s another article.

Preventative Medicine

Now of course a greater chance of catching a cold isn’t going to stop you or me from pursuing our passion for this sport. The main thing to do is to realise this reality and to take as many preventative measures as possible to prevent getting sick. This includes:

• Get out of those sweaty wet cycling clothes as soon as possible after a workout or race without getting arrested for indecent exposure.

• Do NOT share water bottles with teammates.

• Keep yourself properly hydrated after a race by drinking lots. Bring a thermos with something hot for cool days.

• The hat and longsleeve jerseys and tights the pros change into before going up on the podium are not just for sponsorship exposure. They help to keep the athlete warm and dry.

You’re Still Sick – Now What?

If you take all these preventative measures and still end up with an infection like I did, do not take it lightly and start making plans to adjust your training for at least the next week. Despite what you may think, it’s not the end of the world to take a few days off or completely easy. If your significant other isn’t the kind to laugh you out of house and home, you might even convince them to give you some TLC for a day or two.

Once you get back on the bike, resist the temptation to immediately hammer out hard intervals to make up for “lost” time. That’s because it can take your body up to a week to fully recover from even a minor cold, and it was the over-exertion that helped to get you sick in the first place! Remember, it’s always better to be under-trained and healthy than over-trained but sick!

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