This article, "How To Stay Healthy and Train More", was written by Pip Taylor, The Feed's nutritionist. Pip is an accredited sports nutritionist and accredited dietitian, professional triathlete, author and mother of two. Her sporting career spans over 15 years and includes multiple appearances at World Championships representing Australia (ITU Olympic Distance, Long Course, 70.3 and Team Championships); multiple World Cup and 70.3 wins; and podium places and victories in other major international triathlon races. Pip recently had her first book published, 'The Athlete’s Fix’.
If you want to perform well on race or competition day then you need to train well. And training well means training consistently. One of the biggest keys to consistent training is staying well – both injury free as well as healthy. And while you cant always avoid getting injured or picking up an illness, you can give your body a helping hand in fighting off infection and staying (or getting) healthy by paying attention to some good nutrition habits.
Endurance exercise, in which working muscles use oxygen, produces free radicals as a by product of oxidation. Free radicals induce inflammation and this in turn stimulates the immune system to kick into action. The good news for athletes is that regular exercise strengthens the immune system – enabling the body to better deal with stress loads and ultimately reducing levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. These adaptations are also what allows for athletic progression and adaptation to training loads. However there is also a tipping point, and over reaching or chronic over training will stress the body - suppressing the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off illness and infection.
High intensity exercise also suppresses the immune system with research confirming an elevated risk of respiratory tract infection (the most common infection) following hard training and even up to 72 hours after a really hard workout. This means the period after a workout is a critical time not just for recovery but also for staying healthy. In fact that recovery snack or meal actually doubles as an immunity booster – the energy provided helps restore muscle glycogen and repair muscle damage but also works to reduce circulating inflammation post workout in response to intense training. Other habits such as hand washing and staying away from crowds in the hours after a particularly grueling workout can also make a difference. This might take some planning and/or be impossible for busy athletes who go straight from a workout to work, travel on a subway or head to the grocery store. But that just means that controlling what you can – nutritional intake – is even more critical.
Day-to-day good nutrition plays such a key role in both reducing frequency of getting sick as well as the duration and severity of an illness. The immune system requires nutrients for energy: to protect cells from oxidative damage; to produce and enable functioning of enzymes; and maintain proper structure and function of tissues. Athletes engaging in high intensity exercise or frequent training work loads place stress on body tissues and create inflammation as part of that process of adaptation. What you eat can either promote inflammation or work to reduce inflammation so that you are recovering, absorbing workload and actively helping your body maintain natural defenses. Higher levels of circulating inflammation will also prolong recovery from injury or increase the likelihood of getting injured in the first place.
For improved immunity and better training and racing consistency follow these nutritional tips:
Check out Pip's favorite snacks for fueling workouts HERE.
- Look after your gut: The digestive tract is in fact where your body comes into the greatest contact with the outside world and so it makes sense that this is really the control room when it comes to the immune system and handling how and what we respond to in terms of potential pathogens, bacteria and viruses. Keeping your gut healthy is perhaps the most important step in maintaining overall good health. Include probiotics to encourage a healthy gut microbiome as well as prebiotics (essentially fiber which provides the fuel for the gut bacteria) to maintain the integrity of the gut mucosal barrier.
- Eat the rainbow: A colorful plate is a plate likely to be packed with a variety of nutrients, including antioxidants and polyphenols, and will work to reduce levels of inflammation. In particular nutrients such as vitamins A, C, D and E, B6 and B12 along with iron, zinc and selenium and adequate amino acids (proteins) are critical components for maintaining immune health. Consume fresh, whole, real foods and limit consumption of processed foods, sugars and highly refined carbs, artificial sweeteners, processed oils and trans fats.
- Energy: Eat up! Total energy intake is important for maintaining the immune system. Both very high and very low energy intakes increase risk of infection and illness. Even if you are watching intake in regards to weight or body composition, you need to eat enough to adequately fuel your workout to have any positive gains and you need to be eating enough to support your immune system so that you can back it up and continue to train. Weight loss needs to be a considered and slower/long term approach and/or a focus for the off season where training goals and intensity or workouts are lowered.
- Don’t ditch the carbs: Very low carbohydrate diets may not be friendly for athletes looking to stay healthy long term. Get plenty of carbs in the form of fruits and vegetables but skip the refined foods and sugars as these types of carbs only serve to increases inflammation and actually boost your chances of getting sick (or injured). Training in a low carb (or fasted) state is very different to an overall low carb diet, and can have benefits especially for endurance athletes. But it’s all in the timing. (Check out my upcoming article for more on training low carb)!)
- Pay attention to protein: Inadequate protein supply is closely linked with immune system dysfunction. Include some form of quality protein at each meal and especially after long or hard workouts make sure your recovery meal or snack is rich in protein coupled with some carbs to up the absorption rate.
- Eat plenty of fats: Fats are so important to stay healthy and happy. Any natural sources of fat are great – think avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, egg yolks, olive oil, coconut oil and even fats from pastured animals which contain surprising amounts of Omega 3 fats. Avoid refined oils and the fats found in most processed foods.
- Get spicy in the kitchen: Many foods have antibacterial and antiviral properties: Ginger, garlic and chili are great examples and they are also highly concentrated sources of micronutrients.
- Stay hydrated: A well functioning immune system needs plenty of fluid to keep working optimally.
What else can you do to stay healthy?
- Get to bed: Sleep deprivation is one of the most closely linked factors when it comes to illness. Both short term sickness as well as risk of chronic disease skyrockets in those who don’t get enough shut-eye. It may well be that the most important session you do is the one you skip (and stay in bed).
- Recover: Adequate recovery as well as appropriate levels of training for your fitness and not stepping things up too quickly are all key. Over training or being constantly physically stressed increases risk of illness, infection and injury. Remember that critical word – consistency. Train consistently without any super hero days in order to stay healthy.
- Soak up the sun: Vitamin D on a daily basis is essential for the immune system as well as other markers of health. Enjoy some sun exposure but do be careful about getting burned. Nutritional sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver and dairy foods.