Dodging Illness this Winter Season

Winter in Johannesburg finally arrived last week – and with a vengeance! As the cold weather kicks in, the chances of picking up the winter bugs increases dramatically, and can put a serious dent in your training. Here are three ways to detect and attend to the problem… 

Unlike commonly thought, viral infections very seldom develop overnight, and are often lurking in the body (sometimes weeks or months after the initial infection), waiting for an opportune time to strike you down. An increased level of stress is often one such trigger – training in the cold, large shifts in body temperature, and the effect of wind-chill (as one would encounter during cycling) all come with the territory.

Respiratory symptoms. One if the first cues that you may have a lurking viral or bacterial infection is mild irritation of the upper respiratory tract. These seemingly minor infections (URTIs) are often the first indications of a developing problem. Continuing to train with this will only exacerbate the problem, and can escalate the infection, and also allow the establishment of other bacterial and viral infections.

Treatment: get medical assistance or treatment for the initial issue immediately, even if it is over-the-counter throat sprays or lozenges. If it doesn’t resolve within 24-48 hours, medical diagnosis is necessary. Eliminate or at least cut down training to low-intensity and duration – higher workloads put more stress on the entire respiratory system, reduce the activity of the immune system, both of which will set you further back. Ideally, it is best to cease all training until the level of infection becomes clear. Stay out of cold/dry environments, including both your training venue, and your heavily air-conditioned car and office!

Heart rate changes. Another cue of impending viral and immune system issues is detected by means of changes to your heart rate levels. Without going into full detail, the respiratory system has a direct impact on the cardiac rhythm – any issues in the respiratory system will cause changes to heart rate. If you are aware of your “normal” HR levels at certain intensities, and at certain points during your training and racing, any abnormal fluctuations may indicate stress within the cardio-respiratory system. A combination of mild URTI and elevated HRs is 99% positive for an immune system event! So be aware…

Treatment: eliminate or cut down training, until infection is clear.

Performance and recovery. Allied to the factors above, you may start to notice excessive and abnormal levels of fatigue, reductions in power and performance (that “flat” feeling), and an inability to recover completely for your next session. This is another indicator that your immune system is “busy” and the resources that would normally be utilized for recovery, regeneration and adaptation, are now being transferred to the immune system and its allies in the fight against infection…

Treatment: eliminate or cut down training, until infection is clear.

In conclusion, failing to recognize the signs of an impending infection can increase the level and duration of infection, resulting in you losing more training time than necessary, and could also result in additional infections and complications. Many of these symptoms are common to overtraining (another immune system event), and the result of non-treatment and continued high-intensity training could have a highly negative impact on your training and performance.

Keep safe out there!

Zac Van Heerden

Exercise Physiologist – M.Sc (Med) (Exercise Physiology) (Wits)

Assessment and physiological analysis is a key area in maximizing performance. Zac focuses on the development of effective assessment routines, and integration of the results in a holistic training methodology. This incorporates diverse influences such as specialized nutrition, functional strength and stability and high-level periodization to ensure peak performance on race day. He has worked with high-level professional athletes and international performers across a wide range of sports and activities, including professional soccer, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and mountaineering expeditions.

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