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Chasing Potential - Fighting the Immune System Fatigue

 Thursday, August 17, 2017

Training for a marathon is a real challenge for the immune system. It's true - high intensity & long duration exercise places a stress on the immune system, increasing our susceptibility to colds and other infections when we most want to avoid them. Inactivity is bad for the immune system as well, so the happy medium sits with those who exercise at moderate levels. Of course, those of us with performance goals aren't willing to scale back just to reduce the immune system demand, so we have to manage the stress of training (and life) with good nutrition and lifestyle choices. 

I'm less than 6 weeks out now from my "A Race" of the year - the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. It's my first marathon since 2014, and I'm excited to be lining up near the pros - with a "local elite" entry. Training has been progressing well despite some little 'hurdles' along the way. Coach MK's focus this month was on capping off my aerobic system with some VO2max work, while introducing a little more strength workout and some Hill Bounding to strengthen my glutes and prepare for "the hill" on the TCM course (see banner image for hill bounding). Doing hill bounding was new to me, but within a week, I could already feel more power returning to my stride when I hit the track (below) for 1200 & 800m repeats. They were still hard, but with my core & glutes engaged, I could hit paces that I haven't seen in years. 

Back on track and loving the feeling of fatigue mixed with success after nailing a strong workout earlier in August. 

On top of the general stress of heavy training, being a mom of 3 means I'm constantly exposed to all the viruses the kids bring home from their school, camp or daycare friends. Summer typically brings a reprieve from the winter cold & flu cycles since the time outdoors (and vitamin D from the sun) reduce the germ-fest and boost immunity. But I still got hit with a cold that struck after a recent Saturday long run was followed up by an afternoon getting soaked by the sun in the pool. In retrospect, I made a critical mistake that may have left my immune system struggling to repair damage from the run - I didn't refuel until about 90 minutes after my run, and I didn't get out of the pool long enough to hydrate and keep my fuel & electrolytes up during the afternoon. 

My recent long run with our 'Top Guns' Marathon Training group at Life Time Run - St. Louis Park was fun, but I kicked myself later for not refueling right away, and for over scheduling my day. I probably should have saved the shoe shopping for another day instead of packing it between the run and a family outing to the pool, but our local store partner TC Running was having a great sale!

Once the cold hit, I also hit back hard with everything I could do in order to recovery quickly and get back to training. Coach MK reminded me over & over via email to GET IN BED. Yes, she was 'shouting'. I don't mess with MK (and I do want to get back into peak training mode) so I listened and prioritized sleep. 

Here is where I start anytime I get sick: 

  • Sleep. Lots of it. Or at least as much as I can possibly squeeze in as a mom of 3. Getting 8+ hours on multiple nights is a game-changer at this stage.
  • Hydration - I keep my fluid intake high, while making sure I add electrolytes regularly so I don't end up with an imbalance. 
  • Chicken Broth - it's an old-school remedy with scientific backing. I splurged on a whole, organic chicken, roasted it with veggies, and then made broth. Yes I could have been lounging in bed longer, but getting meal-prep done for a few days was worth it. 
  • Epsom Salt Bath - It is relaxing, and magnesium from the salts is actually absorbed through the skin. It's a win for my sore muscles, and the humidity feels good on a sore throat. I throw in some essential oils for good measure (note - mix essential oils into the salts before adding the mixture to the tub. Otherwise they simply float on top the water and can be irritating to the skin). 
  • Steam room. Breathe deep and sweat it out! (Hydrate before & after, of course!!!)

Before getting sick, there are steps you can take to boost your immune system. Here are a few

  • Refuel quickly after long and/or high intensity runs. A shake with protein + carbs gets the fuel to your muscles quickly to reduce the stress on your immune system. This is critical, as your immune system has to manage repairing broken-down muscles AND fighting off any invaders. If under-fueled, it has little chance of keeping up. 
  • Continue fueling through healthy meals throughout the day. Minimize highly processed foods and focus on nutrient density.
  • Increase your vitamin intake through vegetables & some fruits.
  • Maintain a healthy intake of protein & quality fats. 
  • Stay hydrated. Viruses enter more easily through dry nasal passages, especially when traveling via airplanes.
  • Sleep. 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep per night is ideal, though individual needs vary. 
  • Consider supplementation. Vitamin D is very important for immune function, and most people living in northern cities are deficient. Get your Vitamin D levels tested to find the appropriate dose. 
  • A multi-vitamin and Fish Oil can also fill in the gaps in many diets. 
  • Additional supplements may be beneficial - check with a Nutrition Coach to find the right balance for your individual needs.
  • Take a zinc lozenge after hard workouts & long runs. I haven't been doing this, but it was a recommendation in the USATF-Level 2 Endurance Certification course I attended this summer. Unfortunately, most zinc lozenges I have found are either sweetened with fructose or sugar alcohols, which are both out of the question for my low-FODMAP approach. I'm looking to food sources of zinc instead.

Hopefully these tips will keep your immune system humming along strong through your summer / fall training! I'll certainly be placing a higher focus on immune strength in the 6 weeks (gasp!) remaining before TCM. After listening to my own advice, the duration of my cold was relatively short, and I was breathing clearly in time for my next long run!

Last blog post: "Stress & Mental Training" 

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Rebekah Mayer, National Run Training Manager at Life Time Fitness. Follow me on Instagram at rebekah_mayer, on Twitter at @rebekah_mayer and our team at @lifetimerun. Find us on Facebook at