Exercise and the Immune System | How to support your immune system

There’s nothing more devastating than showing up to your race feeling sick and unmotivated to do the one thing you’ve spent months training for.

Whether you’re a seasoned runner or preparing for your first race, no matter the distance, catching a cold just before the competition can take a toll on your mental stamina and confidence. Not to mention your physical ability – arriving at the start line sniffling and tired isn’t exactly an ideal condition for achieving a personal best, although it can be done.

This has happened to me personally before. When I ran the 5k for high school cross-country, I always felt like I was catching a cold during the last weeks of the season, unfortunately right before the championship. Today, more than 10 years later, as a marathon runner, I still hear runners bragging about catching a cold right before or right after their run.

So what about the week or two before a race that seems to make runners more susceptible to disease? Is there any scientific evidence to support this theory or is it largely psychological? Or, worse, is this unspoken embarrassment among the running community just bad luck and unrelated to tapering?

The truth is, there’s not a lot of research exploring what happens to the immune system when you start to drop or drop in miles for a run of any distance. This is not a surprise, after all, it is very specific! However, research indicates that regular exercise can support your immune system by promoting an anti-inflammatory environment in the body, which can help it ward off infection.

So while maintaining a consistent running schedule can potentially boost your immune system, that raises the question of whether a significant drop in mileage can then begin to weaken your immune system, right?

To get to the bottom of this debate, we turned to the experts to deliver the facts.

First of all, can training for a race actually boost your immune system?

“Running and other forms of exercise have a positive effect on your immune system,” says Cedrina Calder, MD, board-certified preventive medicine physician, health expert, and fitness professional. “Research shows that exercise causes an anti-inflammatory response and an increase in the number and activity of immune cells.”

However, as Sydney Green, MS, RDN, at Greene Health, points out that running too much — or overtraining — can, in some cases, have the opposite effect. She adds that determining whether or not running has a positive effect on the immune system may also depend on the intensity and duration of the run.

Studies show that running at moderate levels of exertion for less than 60 minutes can have a positive effect on immunity,” says Greene. “Exercising in this way can reduce inflammation and improve blood sugar [sugar] and lipid [fat] metabolism.”

But for those who go the extra distance and train for half marathons or marathons, running at this intensity for months on end could potentially be a hindrance to immune function.

“The combination of training workloads and the accompanying physiological and psychological stress can actually lead to immune dysfunction and inflammation,” she says.

When a runner starts to taper, what can happen to their immune system?

The answer has nothing to do with decreasing mileage.

In addition to being around someone sick, the likelihood of getting sick can depend on how you react to big events. For example, if you are an anxious or over-stressed person about a week or two before the race, you may be more likely to catch something than someone who is a bit more relaxed.

“We all know that feeling. You’re days away from a race and your adrenaline is pumping. Excitement and nervous energy can make it difficult to sleep and eat,” says Greene. “This, unfortunately, is a recipe for getting sick.”

Keep in mind that the research above suggests that running long distances for an extended period of time can actually weaken the immune system.

“Pair a weakened immune system with psychological stress and you become more likely to get sick,” says Greene.

Calder argues that reducing miles may even benefit immune function.

“Moderate-intensity exercise appears to be helpful to the immune system,” she says. “If anything, the reduction can be helpful if a runner has been training hard and vigorously with little recovery time.”

What are some ways you can support your immune system as you shrink so you’re healthy for the race and beyond?

While trying to prevent illness seems a little out of control, there are several, not-so-obvious ways to prepare your immune system for success in case you run into someone sick before race day.

In addition to eating plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and taking vitamin C and zinc supplementsyou should also consider…

1. Take a B complex with iron or a multivitamin

“Nutritional needs are increased for endurance runners and it can sometimes be difficult to meet the requirements through diet alone,” says Greene. “B vitamins and iron are essential for energy support and recovery. If you are a person who meets your caloric needs but does not consume a variety [of foods]try a multivitamin.

Pro tip: Greene adds that it’s imperative to make sure the supplements you choose are NSF certified for sports.

2. Consume enough protein every day

“Runners generally have no problem getting enough carbs, but when it comes to protein, you don’t want to skimp on this macronutrient,” says Greene. “Protein is a fundamental part of an optimal immune system – it is wise to consume at least 1.2-2 grams/kg of body weight.”

3. Include fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut in your diet to support gut health

“Good Bacteria” [probiotics] in the gut can create a barrier against disease-preventing pathogens,” says Greene. “Additionally, consuming more probiotics in food may boost immunity against illnesses like diarrhea and possibly upper respiratory tract infections.”

4. Getting enough quality sleep is a priority

Calder stresses that getting enough sleep is important for a healthy immune system, adding that adults should aim for around 7 to 9 hours a night.

5. Incorporate rest days into your training cycle, before tapering begins

“Allow rest days in your training program to allow your body a period of recovery,” says Calder. “Intense training without proper rest can have a negative effect on your immune system.”

The essential

If you’re someone who tends to be anxious or stressed when you’re lowering, you’re more likely to get sick when you run. This can be especially the case if your stress levels cause you to lack sleep and nutritious meals. Luckily, there are several ways to boost your immune system during this time — and while you’re in the thick of your training season — so you can look healthy on race day.

However, when it comes to COVID-19 and its variants, the best way to protect yourself from serious illness is to get the vaccine and subsequent booster injections.

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