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Immune control: 10 ways to stay healthy

As flu season kicks into high gear, here are a few simple tips to help you stay healthy and on the bike through the holidays

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Velo magazine. In it, Trevor Connor talks to Dr. Jason Glowney of Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter about how to stay healthy. Connor is a long-time cycling coach and researches both exercise physiology and nutrition at Colorado State University.

1. Take care of yourself!

“It’s all about prevention,” according to Glowney. Glowney and Bookwalter agree that means solid sleep, good nutrition, low stress, and training smart.

2. Avoid overtraining

Take it from grand tour riders who constantly fight sickness — immunosuppression and overtraining go hand-in-hand. If you are frequently getting sick, you are likely training too hard. “Listen to your body,” Glowney said. “If you’re feeling run down and you have something like intense intervals on your schedule, there’s no reason to go out and do that workout.”

3. Save the coffee shop for later

Immune suppression is at its highest in the two hours after a long, hard ride. It’s not the time to hit an enclosed space with a lot of people. “Probably the most important thing is getting back, hydrating, eating, and getting into your recovery routine,” Glowney said.

4. Travel diligently

“You have to have your travel head screwed on,” Bookwalter said. “You can’t be walking through an airport and accidentally rub your eyes.” Bookwalter recommended common sense tactics such as washing your hands, carrying sanitizer, and avoiding people who are coughing. Glowney said to use air vents in airplanes. “The positive pressure of the airflow pushes virus particles away from you,” he said.

5. Rest before flying

Traveling while you’re run down is a bad idea, according to Bookwalter. “It might feel good doing a big ride before your long travel days,” he said, “but you’re not going to have the same immune response if you do encounter something.” Bookwalter tapers before international flights.

6. Cool immunity

Hyperthermia, an increase in body temperature, causes a release of heat-shock proteins that enhance immunosuppression after exercise. Staying hydrated on hot days and drinking cold liquids afterward can help restore normal immune function quicker.

7. Don’t stress it

“I think it’s important when you do get sick to acknowledge it and accept it,” Bookwalter said. “If you try to push through your training block or another race, you’re just going to be compromised for a longer period.” Instead, Bookwalter focuses on forcing himself to stay on the couch.

8. Trust the experts

Bookwalter relies heavily on his coach when he gets sick. “I think, as athletes, we’re all pretty ambitious and ready to jump back into it, probably before we should,” he said. Glowney feels that athletes who frequently get sick should consult a coach, physician, or nutritionist to pinpoint the problem.

9. Ease back into the saddle

No matter how good you feel, if you were coughing all night, you’re not ready. “When I’m sleeping and my energy levels have returned, I’m still not quite ready to jump back in,” Bookwalter said. “I’m always in favor of taking one more day.” Even then, you should ride easy for another few days. “Being too aggressive with it has definitely blown up in my face,” he added.

10. Above the throat

Glowney noted that some doctors differentiate between illnesses that are below and above the throat — something affecting the lungs versus a sore throat or runny nose. He feels it’s safe to train easy under the latter conditions. “But things that are lower down, meaning GI stuff and stuff in the lungs, it’s probably best to wait to ride until you are asymptomatic,” he said. Glowney is very clear about fevers. “No riding, for sure,” he said. He recommended waiting at least 24 hours after a fever has subsided.