The immune system is the body’s defence against illness and infection, and it is boosted by regular, moderate exercise. On the flip side, intense training may cause immuno-suppression in athletes, so to minimise the risk of infection and improve recovery, remember these nutritional tips. – BY ESMÉ MARÉ, REGISTERED DIETICIAN
When you’re training hard, especially in the build-up to a target race, it is often the combination of intense training and inadequate nutrition that decreases your athletic performance, and this will also create a higher risk of illness. Therefore, take some of this advice into consideration in the next few months, especially as the flu season hits the country just as you may be preparing for a big race.
Start by keeping a simple health check-list for yourself, and make sure you meet all these requirements:
• Get enough rest: Incorporate sufficient rest days in your training programme and ensure adequate sleep for at least seven hours per night.
• Avoid crash-dieting and rapid weight-loss: Chronically undersupplying energy, often done by athletes, compromises the immune cell activity, so it is important to time meals to meet your requirements. Even a subtle delay in food consumption after training may have negative effects. For example, to prevent the degradation of the immune system, ensure that within an hour after strenuous training there is a sufficient intake of energy (carbohydrate and protein) to avoid hypoglycaemia.
• Plan your meals: Organising your daily food intake is of great importance to ensure that the correct foods are consumed in order to meet the nutritional goals for optimal training, recovery and competition.
• Get the essentials: Having an adequate dietary intake of protein and specific micronutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12 along with iron, zinc, copper and selenium, are all critical for the maintenance of optimum immune function. Probiotics also play an important role in enhancing gut and immune function, minimising the risk of illness. The important question for athletes is whether or not supplemental form or mega doses of these nutrients are beneficial. Athletes should rather invest in nutrient-rich foods and fluids that are critical for maintaining immune system health, which will provide them with sufficient energy, vitamins, minerals and other important chemicals found naturally in food.
So that’s the theory… here are a few examples of putting it into practice:
• Include high-fibre carbohydrates such as whole-wheat, multi-grain or low-GI seeded breads, fibre-rich cereals (or add oat bran to meals), brown-rice or whole-wheat pasta in your diet.
• Select a variety of fruits and vegetables that are packed with nutrients, and keep your plate colourful – the more colour, the better! Fresh fruit makes a good snack between training sessions, and include the peels and skins of the fruit and vegetables to increase your fibre intake.
• Include dairy such as milk, cheese and yoghurt that contains probiotics.
• Consume whole-foods instead of processed foods.
These nutritional tips cannot guarantee that you will not catch a cold or the flu as your training peaks, but by eating healthier you will give yourself a much better chance of staying on the road instead of staying in bed!