How to Stay Healthy While Training Hard
Being an endurance athlete often means pushing yourself to the limit, especially during competition. However, after these hard efforts, you may have noticed a corresponding decrease in the ability of your immune system to fight off colds and other infections.
Now, I rarely get sick, but once this was not the case. I often think I got the “long end of the stick” in many genetic matters with the exception of my immune system—from about fifth grade onward, I was plagued with truly horrible sinus infections that would last for weeks. In college, being in a dormitory environment certainly didn’t do me any favors, and if anyone on the team had a cold, I would practically be sure to get it. This was extremely annoying since it interrupted my training, and it also quite reasonably made me a little paranoid about washing my hands and avoiding germs whenever possible. (Did that sick person touch that doorknob? Ok, we are going to use the other door.) Both my grandpa and my mother ended up getting sinus surgery, and this was actually something I contemplated while in college because of the intensity and duration of my sinus infections. In essence, if I got a cold, my body had so much trouble getting rid of the lingering congestion that it would become a perfect environment for other bacteria to brew up a nasty infection. So, for other people what might be a 3 day illness would turn into a 2+ week ordeal that negatively impacted my quality of life. I once had a CT scan that showed I had a sinus infection when I actually thought I felt okay!
Alright, enough of this, because no one likes reading about another person not feeling well! I change the channel when cold medicine commercials come on just because I don’t like thinking about it! But, I write this so that if you are one of those people out there reading this and nodding your head and thinking “that is me too!,” that you also know you can find a way to not get sick on a regular basis just like I did.
Here are all of the very specific things I do that I have found largely protect me from getting sick.
1. Do yoga.
This by far is the number one thing you can do for your immune system. The more yoga, the better. I can hardly explain the difference in my immune system from the days I taught mostly English to today teaching mostly yoga in a college environment, but I can tell you I no longer am half-terrified of any sick students in class. If you need some specific poses to do every day, I would recommend backbends (especially wheel if you can do it, or bridge pose as an alternative) and pigeon pose. Backbends open up the whole front of your body, including your face and sinuses, allowing everything to work better there, and pigeon helps you to decongest even if you thought there was nothing there to decongest. Have you ever gone to a yoga class and realized you started to lose your voice a little bit from everything unclogging up there? Yoga really works. By lowering your cortisol levels, yoga helps all of the other systems in your body work more efficiently.
2. Drink apple cider vinegar.
If the thoughts of pure apple cider vinegar shots gross you out, I agree. That’s why I buy these Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar drinks from Vitacost. One per day is plenty, and I’d also recommend using a (biodegradable) straw to help protect your tooth enamel since vinegar is acidic.
3. Drink Emergen-C packets.
I honestly drink at least one of these every single day, and often mix it with my other sports drinks like Ultima. I buy the Immune Boost variety with extra Vitamin D. Side note: if you ever get mononucleosis, large doses of Vitamin C have been found to reduce the duration of the illness! Back when I had mono in 2013, I popped like 6 of these a day and I truly swear it made it better faster in half the time it should have taken. (Vitamin C is water soluble so your body will just eliminate what it doesn’t need.)
4. Utilize the benefits of essential oils.
Get some of these magical little essential oil pills from Doterra called “On Guard Beadlets.” They contain Wild Orange, Clove Bud, Cinnamon Bark, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary. I leave mine in the cup holder of my car so that I’m sure to see them, and then just pop one on the way to work each day.
5. Include some yoga no matter where you are in your training plan.
When tapering and doing less vinyasa yoga, be sure to include some restorative yoga still as part of your day. It’s easy to think you need less yoga during your taper—keep up your protective yogic bubble with some additional restorative yoga.
6. Don’t do anything dumb in terms of upping your volume.
You should know what this means. Just because you were “feeling good” don’t go out and run a 15 miler when you just had 8 on the table for the day. These sudden jolts are what—I am convinced—make you more suspectible to germs. (See also: the next point. The marathon or other big, intense efforts can be characterized as sudden jolts.)
7. Take extra precautions after hard competitions.
Marathons are hard on the body, and there is approximately a 30% chance that I get a cold after a marathon just based on past experience. Do what you need to do to recover, and if you do get sick, remember it’s not the end of the world and you should be resting anyhow! I’ve found that when I do still get a cold, I recover much faster and it no longer develops into a sinus infection—this was something that I once thought was fairly impossible based on my past experiences. If you do steps 1-6, if anything still gets you, there is a very strong likelihood that it won't be as severe as it might have been.
Extra Immune-Boosting Credit (Need more yoga to do anytime? I can help with that! Streamable workouts = no excuse to not practice wherever you are!):
Extra Reading (this was the most interesting article I found on endurance sports and your immune system, in particular for the suggestion that cold water can actually help your immune system function better!):