Whether or not we want to admit it, pharmacy advertisements for flu shots are a tell-tale sign that flu season will soon be upon us. That nasty virus comes back each year to wreak havoc on our bodies and neatly-planned training schedules. Fortunately, your food choices on a daily basis can have a huge impact on your likeliness of being sidelined by the flu (or any cold in general). Starting today, follow these five guidelines to assure you are able to train and compete throughout the entire fall and winter season:
While proper hydration is key for many reasons, it becomes especially important for the prevention of illness. As the weather turns colder, it's natural to not think about drinking fluids as frequently. However, a properly hydrated body can better transport essential nutrients to muscles and organs for proper functioning and recovery. Should you contract either the stomach flu or even a mild fever, hydration should be a top priority. Oral rehydration products such as sports drinks or Pedialyte may be a good way to avoid dehydration if symptoms are severe.
2. ACE it
Antioxidants may be your best defense against inflammation and stress within the body. Vitamins A, C, and E (ACE) are the power players in this category. To make sure you are meeting your needs each day, aim to eat a fruit or vegetable with every meal and snack. The darker the fruit or veggie, the higher it is in antioxidants (i.e dark, green, leafy vegetables, carrots, peppers, berries or oranges). Decreasing daily stress within your body is a key way to help it better fight off any potential threats to your immune system.
3. Consider Carbohydrate
Be sure to use carbohydrate-containing foods and/or beverages before, during, and after intense training or competitions. The body's stress hormones are at their highest after this type of exercise bout. Fueling your body properly with adequate carbohydrates will provide protection during this vulnerable time, decreasing the negative effect of stress hormones on your body.
4. Fuel, Refuel Recharge
In addition to proper carbohydrate supplementation during exercise, it is essential to maintain a well-balanced diet throughout the entire day. Include adequate carbohydrate, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. For most athletes, this includes eating at least every 3-4 hours to meet the body's training and recovery needs. Committing to good nutrition on a daily basis will assure your immune system is functioning at its best.
5. Supplement Smart
Unfortunately, there are no supplements guaranteed to prevent a cold or flu. However, at the first sign of illness, research has shown that two supplements may help decrease the severity and duration of the cold: zinc lozenges and vitamin C tablets. Begin sucking on zinc lozenges at the first sign of an impending illness, but limit length of use to no more than 1 week and don't use on an empty stomach. Note that citrus juice interferes with zinc absorption, so avoid it 30 min before and after using a lozenge. When taking vitamin C, limit each dose to 500 mg max for a total of 1000mg max daily. Anything above this amount is not efficiently absorbed and will simply be excreted in the urine.
Of course there are many flu-prevention behaviors you should keep in mind in addition to diet. Don't underestimate the value of proper sleep (ideally an average of 7-9 hours uninterrupted sleep per night), washing your hands, getting a flu shot, and keeping daily stressors to a minimum. If you feel like you are coming down with something, it is better to err on the side of caution and take a rest day. Overtraining and chronic fatigue only creates extra stress, which makes it more difficult for your body to mount an attack on the pending virus.