A frustrating part of training through the winter is the seemingly inevitable colds, stomach bugs or bouts of flu. Great Britain Cycling Team Head of Medical Services Dr Nigel Jones explains why this is the case, steps to avoid getting ill and, if you do succumb, how to enhance your recovery.
Why do we seem to pick up more colds, flu and other bugs in the winter?
It is important first to understand how they are spread. When you cough or sneeze you produce a shower of water particles that contain the bugs. So, one theory is, because during the winter we spend more time indoors and in close proximity to other people, the more chance there is of exposure and consequent infection.
Another possible reason is that we know that Vitamin D helps to support your immune system and, as we rely predominately on sunlight for our bodies to produce it, levels can be low in winter.
The final possible explanation is that in the cold air tends to be drier. This causes the bug containing water droplets to be smaller, lighter and hence hang around in the air for longer. This same effect happens indoors when we have our central heating on during winter months.
What’s for certain though is that going out for a ride and getting cold and wet has no bearing at all on catching bugs.
Does training make us more prone to infection?
Up to a certain point training will boost your immune system but, once you go beyond that point, it will compromise it. Knowing that tipping point is key but it is a highly individual thing. If you are repeatedly pushing your body and not factoring in enough recovery, it’s likely it will have a negative effect on your immune system. That’s why, especially when building up to a major competition, we have to be really careful not to push athletes over that immune system cliff.
What can I do to prevent myself getting ill?
Hygiene, hygiene and hygiene. I recently did an induction talk with the new members of the Senior Academy and the main focus was hygiene. Basics like not sneezing into the open air. Use a tissue, bin it and then use an alcohol gel to disinfect your hands. Always be diligent with your hand washing after using the toilet and don’t assume, if you are using a public toilet, that everyone else will do the same. Flushes, door handles and taps can all carry germs so again, carrying some alcohol gel is the best way to go. It is an unpleasant thought but one of the most common sources of gastric infection is via the ingestion of faecal matter so always wash and disinfect your hands before you eat!
Should I take any supplements?
There is no doubt, over the winter months, that a high proportion of the UK population has a Vitamin D level below the ideal. Along with supporting your immune system, Vitamin D also plays an important role in musculoskeletal health and could also be involved with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although you should always look to optimise your diet before considering supplementation, Vitamin D can be difficult to obtain in sufficient amounts from food. Therefore, I would recommend, during the winter, that people consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
How do I know when not to ride?
The cliché is to listen to your body but it is true and most people have pretty good intuition. However, if you want to be a bit more sophisticated and objective about it, heart rate and temperature are your best simple guides. Track your resting heart rate in the morning. If it is normally in the mid 60’s but you wake up not feeling 100% and it’s 80 bpm - that would suggest that your immune system is under stress. Similarly, use an in-ear thermometer to check your temperature. Normal body temperature is 37°C, but does vary slightly. Your temperature may be 0.6°C above or below this and can vary throughout the day. Find what your typical healthy normal temperature is in the morning and, like heart rate, if you wake up not feeling right and it is up by 0.5°C or more, that is a strong sign not to train.
When can I start riding again?
Although people are really keen to minimise lost training time, by getting back on your bike too early, you will probably just prolong the illness. A good rule of thumb is 24 hours free of any symptoms and then 24 hours of having a normal temperature and resting heart rate so, effectively, 2 days clear.
How much fitness you will lose depends on a number of factors including how fit you were before you got ill and genetics. Anything less than 2-3 weeks is not going to be hugely significant though. After that time period, you will start to see a reduction in VO2 max, blood volume, muscle mass and a number of other markers.
If you are following one of the British Cycling Training Plans and miss 2 weeks or more due to illness, go back to the last recovery week you completed, use that to ease yourself back into training and restart the plan from that point.
What can I do to help my body get well?
Whether it is recovering from hard training or illness, the most important two factors are sleep and nutrition. Sleep is your body’s natural way of recovering from physical and psychological stress so, if you are ill, make sure you get plenty of good quality sleep. Eat well, maybe supplementing with Vitamins C and D, and keep well hydrated.