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How to keep your immune system healthy during the Coronavirus pandemic

Welcome to the first Nero Coaching blog for 2020! This one discusses the big ticket item for this year - coronavirus/Covid-19/SARSCov2 and how you can continue to train while maximising the ability of your immune system to be ready for it.

By now, you’ll be familiar with the latest government guidelines about keeping yourself safe from Covid-19 (if not, click here for WHO advice). Wash your hands, cough into your elbow, disinfect everything in sight.

However, there are certain other things you can do to make sure your immune system is in tip-top shape that are particularly important for athletes (and several are also applicable to your grandma - spread the word). It’s worth noting that scientific knowledge on Covid-19 is evolving fast, and the recommendations given here are to do with general immune health, with the hypothesis that this will hopefully reduce your risk of contracting it, or reduce the severity if you do so. The article we drew from for this post focuses on upper respiratory tract infections, but the recommendations will be useful regardless.

Disclaimers done, let’s dig in.

In simple terms, things that can result in lowered immunity through a bunch of complex pathways include:

  • Life stress

  • Sleep disruption

  • Environmental extremes

  • Long haul travel (fat chance of that at the moment)

  • Nutritional deficits

  • Heavy exercise

Let's go through them one by one.

Life stress: your appraisal of a situation, coupled with your perceived ability to cope with it combine to determine whether it is pleasant or not. A challenging situation that you see as difficult to cope with can set off a cascade of actions that ultimately result in physiological stress and lowered immune function. Similarly, chronic life stress, depression and anxiety can impact your immune system.

Coping with life stress can be difficult, and will be very individual. Trying to maintain a positive outlook in these times can be tough, but having someone to talk to can help a lot. Friends and family or Lifeline and similar services are a great resource, but leave suggestions for how you’re coping with the current outbreak in the comments!

Sleep disruption: In a couple of studies, people sleeping <6hrs a night and with poor sleep efficiency were 4-5 times more likely to get a common cold after having the virus sprayed up their nose (glad I wasn’t a volunteer on that study). Chronic sleep disturbance appears to reduce immune function pretty significantly, but the odd night of bad/reduced sleep here and there is less worrying.

Good sleep also enhances performance, so prioritise it! Things that can help include: getting >7 hrs sleep, monitoring sleep and how you feel in the morning, napping, good sleep hygiene pre bed (screen free, dim the lights, meditate etc).

Heavy exercise: Immune function can drop 15-70% in the immediate recovery phase after hard exercise (<24hrs). However, exercise is also good for immune function in general, so the positives likely outweigh the risks here. Where it may be worse is a scenario of over reaching or over training, where too many hard sessions are strung together, chronically depleting immune function without proper recovery. Training load increases should be done gradually, with advice and monitoring from a coach being the best route forward. If you do have a coach, make sure you listen to their advice - smashing huge weeks isn't the best plan.

This is a good time to make sure your recovery is good and you’re limiting how many hard sessions you do in a week or back to back, particularly when combined with other immune stressors.

Environmental extremes, long haul travel:: This may be less relevant with the travel restrictions in place at the moment, but if big changes in temperature and environment are expected, reduce/monitor training load and acclimatising properly may help. Long haul travel has flow on effects for sleep disruption and the obvious disadvantage of being stuck in a tin can with possibly sick people.

Nutritional deficits: Eating plenty of fruit and veg and a balanced diet is the best way to go. You might need to get creative with recipes since people tend to be hoarding essentials, so pull out the Delia Smiths and use the extra time on your hands to create masterpieces!

Short term energy restriction and long term low energy availability can compromise immunity, and may have a larger effect when other immune stressors are present, like hard training etc. Now is probably not the time to think about extreme weight loss (however carefully managed weight reduction is probably fine). While the research on supplements shows most are pretty crap, vitamin D in winter might be a decent option.

If you got here, well done. If you didn’t read the above, here's the abridged version:

Don’t hang around sick people. Do the normal government recommendations for avoiding spreading the virus. Don’t train too hard too often, or increase load too fast. Try to minimise physical and psychosocial stress. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough recovery in your training plan. Sleep >7hrs + practice good sleep hygiene. Eat a balanced diet and don’t go ham on weight loss.

If you’d like to get in contact about coaching plans, with lots of people working from home or quarantined and maybe having a bit more time on their hands, now is a great time to start. Having a plan and a goal to focus on can help provide some structure in uncertain times.

Email (Australia) or (UK) to find out more.

We’ll be posting some more regular blogs with tips and advice on managing training with everything that’s going on, so give us a follow at @nerocoaching (IG + twitter). We’ll also be doing a series on how the @nerocontinental lads are keeping up their training so stay tuned for more!

Information from this article mostly drawn from: “Recommendations to maintain immune health in athletes”, (Neil P. Walsh)


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