How often do you get sick? As the cold season sets in, many of us will develop that annoying cough or sore throat. Is there anything you can eat to fend off illness during the winter training season? In fact – yes! But it may not include quite what you thought...
1. Take in plenty of carbs throughout the day.
Following a low-carbohydrate diet results in elevated levels of cortisol in an athlete’s body. Cortisol is known as the regulator of the immune system. It functions to increase protein breakdown in muscles, inhibit uptake of glucose into the body’s cells, and increase breakdown of fat. Therefore, chronically elevated levels force your body into a constant state of muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, increasing your risk for upper respiratory tract infections (such as the common cold). High levels also negatively affect sleep, mood, bone health, ligament health, cardiovascular health, and athletic performance. Follow a moderate to high-carbohydrate daily eating program and don’t go into a workout without first taking in carbohydrate. This is particularly important for athletes trying to improve speed or training for greater than 3-4 hours (Seebohar, 2004).
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of protein.
Just like carbohydrate helps decrease elevated cortisol levels before and during exercise, protein (and specifically branched-chain amino acids), help decrease cortisol levels post-exercise. This is another reason why that post-workout meal or snack must include protein (Seebohar, 2004).
3. Minerals matter too.
Three minerals play a significant role in strengthening our immune system: Zinc, Selenium, and Iron. Before you run out and buy supplements, consider the fact that zinc supplements can interfere with the absorption of iron and copper and actually suppress the immune system. Besides, research is mixed whether supplementing with zinc actually wards off illness. Instead, turn to animal foods and whole grains for zinc. If (and only if) you have been diagnosed with low zinc, consider 15mg of supplemental zinc daily (max!). Selenium deficiency is less common, but food sources include meat, fish, poultry, whole grains, and nuts. Discussion of iron deficiency could be its own blog, but know that it is very common in endurance athletes (especially females). Food sources include animal products as well as dried beans and legumes, green leafy veggies, and iron-fortified grains (Dunford and Doyle, 2008).
4. Vitamin C is effective…sort of.
I’m sure many of you consider vitamin C your “go to” vitamin when you are trying to fend off a cold. I have good and bad news. A meta-analysis of studies revealed that routine vitamin C supplementation did not reduce the incidence of colds (boo). However, once the cold was present, duration was reduced by 8% and severity was also reduced (yay) (Douglas et al., 2004). Look to get vitamin C from foods such as citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes.
5. Re-assess your training regimen.
While moderate exercise strengthens the immune system, more rigorous or prolonged training (such as that for marathon training) greatly increases risk for upper respiratory tract infections. If you are concerned about being sick for your favorite holiday party, perhaps scale back from a hard training regimen for a time and give your body a (likely) needed break (Dunford and Doyle, 2008).
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