Wipeout! Dealing with Overtraining and Illness

For the past week I haven’t been able to workout because of illness which I believe was the indirect result of overtraining that weakened my immune system.  It has been a very frustrating week with only a month to go before my first race of the 2010 season.  I feel like a kid stuck inside while the the other kids are playing in the street on a beautiful spring day.

At this point, the only proper thing left to do is to use this as a learning experience and move on.  It has certainly raised my awareness to just how susceptible endurance athletes are to illness.  At first that last statement seems counterintuitive until you realize that intense exercise will temporarily weaken the immune system while the body recovers.

Did you know that the common cold is the most frequent infectious disease in humans?  An average adult gets the common cold 2-4 times per year according to this Wikipedia article.  This sounded very high to me but after reading about this all week apparently some endurance athletes have reported upper respiratory infections 11 times in a single year.

Here are some things you can do to help boost your immune system, speed recovery, and avoid these temporary setbacks altogether.

Rest – This study states that people getting less than 7 hours sleep each night are almost 3 times more susceptible to develop a cold than those that sleep 8 hours or more.  Adequate rest is also necessary for proper recovery so you should be trying for a solid 8 hrs or more anyway when training seriously.

Nutrition – Getting the right nutrition, at the right time, and in the right amounts is vital to a strong, quick recovery from an intense workout.  I’m making an assumption that what is good for recovery is also good for restoring a weakened immune system.

Vitamins – Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and others are thought to boost the immune system.  This Wikipedia article suggests that vitamin C is only effective at reducing the incidence of colds for athletes as opposed to those not working out.

Avoid public places – The common cold is transferred through contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person.  This sounds disgusting but the world is probably a much dirtier place than what is visible to the eye!

I’ve been working out at the gym 3-6 days per week this year which I believe puts me in harms way exactly at the time that my immune system is weakest.  An infected person could have sneezed on a spin bike prior to me using it which would be easily transferred to my face as I wiped some sweat away.  It IS gross!

Clean Hand / Dirty Hand – I had never heard of this one before and it is going to be a tough habit to form.  The idea is to always use one hand for things like opening doors or shaking hands while using your other hand to scratch an itch or rub your nose.  If you shake my hand… sorry pal you are gettin’ the dirty one because I don’t trust you.

Speaking of clean hands.  Clean your hands often.  When sick try to wash your hands whenever you pass a sink.  This would also be a good idea in the 4-6 hours following an intense workout.

Listen to your body – If you are feeling tired and unmotivated to workout then your body might be telling you something.  Listen to nature’s cues and insert some rest days.  Stay conservative in your training.

While I didn’t uncover anything correlating overtraining with a weakened immune system I think it only makes sense.  I’ve been sick twice this year and both times it was following an intense 3 week cycle without a break.  In both cases I had a planned “light volume” 4th week which ended up in a zero volume sick week.  :(

Just days before getting sick this time around I wrote in my training log that I was feeling “tired” and looking forward to the light week ahead.  Our body will tell us when to pull back if we listen.

Conclusion

These tips are good practices whether you are trying to avoid getting sick or wondering what to do when you are already sick.  The common cold should last from 7 to 10 days during which time you will want to take it easy.

I’m also not a fan of drugs just for the sake of covering up natural symptoms to underlying problems.  There is no cure for the common cold… you basically have to allow your body to naturally respond and heal itself.