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When Do Athletes Get Sick?

Posted by: on March, 31 2016

Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Alex Hutchinson

An important skill for athletes is staying healthy—not just avoiding injuries, but dodging the endless minor colds and infections that can interfere with training and racing.

How important is it? A new analysis of training data from 37 elite Norwegian cross-country skiers over a nine-year period compared the 16 athletes who had won Olympic or World Championships medals with the rest of the group. There were no differences in training load or other risk factors (like number of races or time spent at altitude) between the two groups. But the medal winners reported a yearly average of 14 “symptomatic days” with respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, compared to 22 in the non-medal-winners.sick2
It may be, the authors note, that having “a robust immune system capable of withstanding and recovering quickly from infection, even during periods of high physiological, psychological and environmental stress,” is one of the traits that leads to the Olympic podium. Or perhaps top athletes are simply more diligent about washing their hands, eating well, getting adequate sleep, and so on.

The study, which appears in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, comes from researchers at Loughborough University and the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee, led by Ida Svendsen. Thanks to the richly detailed online training logs that Norwegian national-team members are obliged to keep, the analysis has a bunch of fascinating insights about what factors seem to be associated with illness in this group.

One of the biggest risks was air travel, with athletes nearly five times as likely to report an infection the day after a flight, and elevated risks persisting for up to a week. There are lots of reasons flights might be a risk: packed airplanes, dry air, overall stress of travel, and so on.

In many cases, the flights are to and from races—and races themselves are another risk factor, with athletes nearly three times as likely to report symptoms the day after a race. The fact that athletes often fly home immediately after a race is a double whammy, so it’s not surprising that homeward flights were more likely to be followed by infection than outbound flights. That may be a good reason to suggest waiting a day before flying home, rather than flying home the same day as a race, the authors suggest.

(This rings very true to me: I can’t remember a single time when I raced in Europe without getting sick within a few days of returning.)

Symptoms occurred more frequently and lasted longer in the winter than the summer. This is interesting because it’s the same pattern observed in summer-sport athletes like swimmers, even though their yearly training and competition patterns are reversed. The skiers do their biggest volume of training during the summer, but that doesn’t seem to translate into more infections. That suggests the seasonal patterns are more likely due to environmental factors (e.g. vitamin D levels) than training or competition factors.

One final pattern that popped out in the data was a link with “training monotony,” which was defined as the average “training load” (basically intensity times duration) of workouts divided by the standard deviation of workout training loads. High training monotony means you’re working similarly hard day after day, while low training monotony means some days are far harder (or easier) than others.

Surprisingly, higher training monotony was associated with less risk of illness. You can construct plausible explanations for this (perhaps having more training monotony means you avoid the occasional really hard days that leave your immune system weakened), but I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that before reading the study. I’d be hesitant to put too much weight on the finding for now, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see if similar patterns pop up in future data sets.

Anyway, there are no magic solutions here, but some useful clues about when and why athletes get sick. Personally, during my first few years of university, I used to get a couple of throat infections or colds pretty much every season—never a big deal, but just enough to derail any momentum I was building. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my times stagnated compared to high school during those years.

It wasn’t until my third year of university that I decided that it was better to stay healthy than to get a little extra training in. For me, stepping back from the edge a bit (along with being more disciplined about rest and diet) finally allowed me to string together some healthy months of training with no interruptions—and that translated into big performance breakthroughs.