By Jenevieve Roper, MS (@jlynnfit)
So you took the plunge and finally picked a physique contest, made a training schedule and meal plan that was sure to carry you through to the end, wrote the date in your calendar and diligently crossed off each day that passed. As the competition drew closer, your workouts got longer and more intense to get as much fat off your body as possible while holding on to your muscle. Then — bam! Out of nowhere, you got sick. Sound familiar? Well, there is a reason this happens so often, and there are ways to prevent that dreaded illness from stopping you in your tracks.
Down With The Sickness
You know how exercise is good for your health: it reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, among other things. Well, turns out the more intensely you exercise, the greater your chance of getting sick. After high-intensity exercise, there is a time period called “The Open Window,” when we are most susceptible to getting sick. It occurs just after strenuous exercise and lasts up to six hours, although some researchers believe it could extend up to 72 hours following your workout. During this time, our immune status is decreased below the threshold for infection, meaning that our immune systems are not capable of fighting off opportunistic infections that we come into contact with. In fact, we are just as likely to contract an infection during this time frame as someone who is sedentary, if not more.
The next question to answer is “Why?” Well, during the first 30 to 60 minutes after a tough bout of exercise, your body experiences a rapid decrease in white blood cells. And particularly with endurance exercise (which is important for getting off that last little bit of fat that our body is hanging on to) there is a drop of 30 to 50 per cent in the number of white blood cells, leaving our bodies vulnerable to invasion.
Researchers are not quite sure why our circulating levels of white blood cells drop after exercise, but it is generally believed that they leave the blood compartment and enter our peripheral tissues (i.e. skeletal muscles). Several things can make the depression of your immune system worse. For example, the greater the duration and intensity the exercise, the greater the drop in circulating white blood cell counts. Also, if we do another bout of strenuous exercise during our “open window,” we actually prolong the amount of time our immune systems are depressed (making those twice-a-day sessions seem not-so-great). Your nutritional profile is another factor that affects the “open window.”
When we exercise while on a low-carb diet (leading to depleted glycogen stores), we actually exacerbate this response. It appears that high-intensity training paired with a low-carb diet spells out disaster for our immune system. And let’s not forget about stress and cortisol, which have detrimental effects on your physique and immune system. With your typical contest prep, there is a high likelihood that the combination of these influences is putting you at risk for getting sick, which will hinder your training in those imperative final weeks.
Closing The Window
Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to help close your “open window.” If you are hammering out twice-a-day workouts, try to make them as far apart as possible. This gives your body — and therefore your immune system — time to recover. Also, keep one of the sessions low to moderate in intensity — the lower, the better. This may mean that you have to work for longer durations to still maintain your physique changes, but it will help prevent you from getting sick.
When aiming for this level of intensity, keep your heart rate 60 per cent of your age predicted maximum heart rate (220 — age) or less. Any higher and you put yourself at risk of infection. Also, keep a decent amount of carbohydrates in your diet. Try not to get fewer than 120 grams of carbs per day. If your physique is still in need of tweaking, try carb cycling, which has many benefits when it comes to leaning out. Don’t go more than two days in low-carb mode, and then “carb load” on the third day. Start with approximately 100 grams of carbs on days one and two, and then increase your carbs to at least double that on the third day (typically 200 to 300 grams of carbs should do the trick). However, it is necessary to play around with the numbers to find the combination that is perfect you.
Some people get the best results when their low-carb days are around 50 grams before they boost it up to 300 to 400 grams. Nevertheless, carb cycling during your contest prep will help keep your glycogen stores replenished to prevent the depression of your immune system. Also, it’s important to relieve your stress on a regular basis. As mentioned earlier, cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone,” has detrimental effects on your immune system and physique. This makes it very important to find methods of relaxation. Try getting a once- or twice-monthly sports massage to release some tension, which not only helps your body but also your mind. Meditation is another great way to relax: aim for 15 minutes each day to see some benefits. If you need something more exciting to relieve the stress, playing some pick-up basketball or even boxing can help you blow off some steam.
The best thing for you to do is to rest up and get plenty of sleep. Continuing to exercise will only make it worse and extend the time needed for recovery. Drink plenty of fluids and consume electrolytes. It may be necessary to eat some extra carbs to fuel your body, since your metabolism will be elevated while fighting off the infection. Try consuming some extra vitamin C to boost your immune system, and consider using a zinc spray, which has been found very effective in shortening the duration of a cold. Whatever method you choose, make sure you give yourself enough time to recover so that you can go “beast mode” in the gym to wrap up your contest prep.
Heal From Within
Don’t forget to supplement with some immunity-boosting vitamins as your event gets closer. Pop and eat these to fortify your body.
- Vitamin A is known as the “anti-infection vitamin,” and supplementing with it can reduce your risk of developing infections. Typically red, orange, and green leafy plants are chock full of vitamin A.
- Vitamin C is also associated with fewer infections; green chili peppers, guava, red peppers, broccoli, kiwis, and goji berries are some fruits and vegetables that have the greatest amount of this necessary vitamin.
- Zinc is a micronutrient that has also been linked with fewer infections. Eating foods that contain zinc, such as wheat, beans, nuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds, should provide you with the daily-recommended amounts. However, if your diet is not well-balanced and is lacking any of these nutrients, a multivitamin should help you reach those recommendations.
Jenevieve Roper, MS,is a doctoral candidate in exercise science at the University of New Mexico.