There’s been loads of chat about bugs and germs in the UKSportsChat community in the last few weeks. Disappointed runners having to miss their long runs, others feeling below par and simply wondering whether to run or not. It can be so frustrating when you’re in the thick of a pIan and you’re struck down by illness after illness. Sometimes just staying well and getting to the start line is the hardest part of race preparation. I thought it might be helpful to explain a bit about our immune systems and compile some top tips for keeping healthy whilst training.

The Immune System
We’re probably familiar with why red blood cells are important to runners; they carry oxygen to our toiling muscles and they make up 45% of our blood volume. We might not however be so knowledgeable about our white blood cells which only make up about 1% of our blood volume. Small in number they may be but they’re powerful little things; they’re our resident army, our defence against infection and are ready to leap into action at the first sign of invaders.

There are lots of different types of white cells: neutrophils, eosinophils basophils, lymphocytes and monocytes. Neutrophils are by far the most common making up 65% of the white cells.

When a germ enters the body the white cells have a number of tricks up their sleeve. They can directly ingest (yes, literally swallow up and digest) the pathogen. They can produce antibodies which will then destroy the germ or they can produce chemicals to neutralise the toxins that the germ has released.

How does training affect our immune system?
We all know that being active is good for us and in the long term will make us fitter and healthier. People who exercise regularly will have less infections than those that don’t. It’s important however to recognise that training does put a strain on our body particularly when we’re trying to improve, whether that be to get faster, stronger, go further or even a combination of all of these. The normal status quo in our body is upset and this can result in a strain on our immune system. After a blast of training our immune defence will be lowered for up to 24 hours. This is thought to be due to the high levels of adrenaline and cortisol which are our stress hormones and they suppress our immune system. During that 24 hour time period we’re more likely to pick up infections, especially those of our upper respiratory tract like coughs and colds. This is particularly true if our exercise is over 90 minutes or if we’re doing a high intensity session.

What about over training?
If we allow time for recovery then our immune system will return to business as usual very quickly. If however we don’t have adequate rest and continue pushing harder day after day then there’s a risk we may get overtraining syndrome. This is not the same as feeling a bit tired and getting lots of colds which is within normal territory for long distance runners. Overtraining syndrome can be serious and lead to a range of symptoms including exhaustion, poor performance, injury, depression, sleep disturbance, joint and muscle pains and frequent infections.

How can we keep well?
There are numerous ways we can make sure we stay in good shape while we’re training. Here are my top tips:

  • Train sensibly. Follow the 10% rule and don’t increase your intensity or distance by more than this each week. Plan an easier week every 4 weeks. Be flexible, if you’re feeling tired then reduce the intensity or distance.
  • Take rest days. Recovery is essential for our bodies to adapt to the increased loads we put on them. Proper rest days when you do as little as possible are as important as heavy training days. Scrimp on these and you’ll pay the price.
  • Sleep lots. Adequate sleep is always important but increase your sleeping time when you’re training hard. Sleep is a powerful restorative state.
  • Don’t forget the taper. Don’t cut back on this important part of your plan. You won’t get any fitter in the week before your race but you might get ill if you over do it.
  • Eat well. A healthy diet packed with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoiding ready made and processed meals is always worth the effort. Don’t train on empty and refuel well after exercise.
  • Wash your hands. A lot! This is especially important before eating and after using communal exercise equipment in gyms. Warm soapy water is best. Hand sanitiser gels are great if you’re on the move.
  • Plan your week. Traditionally runners do their long runs on a Sunday and then expose themselves to commuter germs on a packed train on Monday morning when their immune system is still recovering. Something as simple as moving the run to a Saturday might be enough to make a difference.
  • Respect illness. If you do get ill then don’t just plough on. A few days rest will help you heal more quickly. You’ll just be out for longer if you pretend you’re fine. I wrote about whether you should run when you’re ill for Women’s Running magazine, you can read it here
  • Minimise stress. Easy to say but often hard to do. Other life events, commitments and strains will all take their toll on you. Simplify and delegate wherever you can.
  • Learn from experience. If you’re really struggling with this aspect of your training then it might be worth keeping a training log detailing what exercise you did, how you felt, how you fuelled and any illness you had. There might be a pattern that you were unaware of.

These are just my top tips. I’m sure others of you have gems to share. Why not leave them in the comments below for everyone to read or drop me a tweet? Don’t forget to add #UkRunChat so we can all share the knowledge.

Keep well everyone!