Guest post by Jamin Thompson
We train as hard as we can…
We push our bodies to the limits…
We eat our veggies and don’t sneak cheat meals…
We do all of the right things…
…but then winter strikes and some of us end up living every lifter’s worse nightmare: missing days or weeks from the gym and seeing all of your gains wiped out because you got hit with a bad cold…or even worse, the flu.
Cold and flu season is upon us, my friend, and as I’m sure you very well know: getting sick and missing time from the gym is not an option…
Who wants to work hard for months, only to see all of your hard earned gains wiped out in a few days by the flu?
I sure don’t, and if you’re reading this right now, I’m sure you don’t either.
This winter alone, it seems like I have seen more people get sick and miss weeks of training due to a bad cold or flu than ever before.
For serious lifters, this can be a real setback because missing 2 weeks (or more) from training can significantly impact your strength and size gains.
Not to mention your performance over time.
Now, you may be one of the lucky few who rarely gets sick and that’s great…
…but here is a stone cold fact: we are all at risk of catching a bad cold or flu because hard training suppresses the immune system – and this leaves lifters (especially serious athletes) susceptible to opportunistic infections.
But I train hard every day – am I screwed?
Well for starters, let’s try not to panic.
Take a few deep breaths…woooo sahhh.
Is there a risk of getting sick when you’re training hard in a gym full of germs? Yes.
Does the probability of getting sick increase even more when you’re training hard in a gym full of germs DURING WINTER? Hell yes.
Do not worry though, my friend…
There are certain strategies you can put in place to (1) help reduce your risk of getting sick; and (2) to properly manage that illness if you do end up getting sick; and (3) to ease your way back into training without having a relapse.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself “haha whatever dude, the joke is on you because I know that going to the gym and working out will strengthen my immune system!”
If you are thinking this, you are 100% correct – buttttttt not so fast my friend…
Recent research has suggested that high performance athletes (aka serious lifters) are more susceptible to infections both during and after intense or prolonged training sessions.
So what does this mean exactly?
It means that after hard training, your immune system is suppressed (and immune function can decrease significantly) for a period of 3-24 hours – and that your body is most vulnerable to getting sick during the 2-6 hour window right after your workout.
To make matters worse, there can be some really scary viruses and bugs lurking around every corner in most gyms – and being constantly exposed to them while also training hard can increase your risk of getting sick even more than the average non-lifter.
Sure, you can try to wipe all of the equipment down…you can try to avoid touching door handles & sick faucets…and you can also try not to put your hands anywhere near your face (I have tried all of these actually, don’t judge me)…
…but let’s face it, you still have to touch the gym equipment at some point…and you will also be in very close contact with germ carrying people in the gym as well.
This makes avoiding gym germs almost impossible (even if you are the worlds biggest germophobe) and super aware of every single risk in your gym.
With that said, if you’re like me and you’re training hard consistently during cold and flu season, the combo of gym germs + hard training + flu season means you are probably in the highest risk category for getting sick.
Now, if you’re the true savage that I think you are, you’re probably reading this and thinking to yourself “no cold will be strong enough to make me miss a workout bro” and I can respect the savagery…
…but research has suggested that even mild colds can significantly influence your training and negatively affect your performance.
So even if you are a level 10,000 savage, it is still smart to focus on prevention. Go it, bro?
So what can you do to prevent getting sick?
First and foremost, the best line of defense is your immune system. Maintaining a strong, healthy immune system will allow you to fight off the viruses, germs, and other harmful invaders that we are exposed to on a daily basis.
With that said, here are my best tips to help you stay healthy and not miss a single workout during cold and flu season:
1. Stop The Flu Before It Starts – Since it’s both impractical as well as totally uncool to live in a bubble, we are always going to be exposed to nasty bugs and infections. This is just a fact of life.
While we can never completely eliminate the risk of contact, our goal here is to simply minimize that risk.
With that said, I know I may hurt some feelings with what I’m about to say next because I know this topic is highly controversial in many health and fitness circles…
The numbers don’t lie though…and since I’m a numbers guy I am going to tell you to go get your flu shot.
Before you skip straight to the comments section to cuss me out and tell me how “unhealthy” I am, just keep in mind that the stats and the studies back up getting a flu shot (especially in elite athletes), so if you truly want to minimize your risk, this is probably your best bet.
Especially if you’re elite.
But I digress.
I know it may sound corny, but the saying is true, “an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.”
Sure, you may eat healthy and do all of the right things, but even so-called healthy people can catch the flu and spread it to others. The risk is always there.
Also, as I mentioned previously, if you’re training hard day in and day out, you have a significantly higher risk of getting sick because your immunity may be weakened due to the high training volume.
Like the late Macho Man once said, “you may not like it, but accept it” – and science tells us that getting a flu shot can lower your chances of catching the flu AND increase your chances of staying healthy during flu season.
Why risk getting sick and losing gains just to be “right?” Just saying.
2. Focus On Your Post-Workout Recovery – This one is sort of a no-brainer, but I still need to say it anyway: if you want to make gains and constantly improve, it means you’ve got to train hard.
Now, of course we’ve got to train hard…but it doesn’t just stop there. We also need to recover in order to make all of that hard training pay off.
You see, if you don’t get enough rest…or if you don’t allow your body enough time to recover (especially during the winter) all of that hard training can lead to a reduction in performance and a compromised immune system.
Several studies have shown that high performance athletes may be more susceptible to illness after intense or prolonged workouts – and that hard training can suppress mucosal immunity for up to 24 hours.
In fact, researchers have observed a significant decrease in immune function and a negative impact in white blood cell function in athletes after hard workouts. This means that after you workout, your body is in a very vulnerable state for viral infections to take hold.
So if you’re an elite athlete or a hard training lifter, the increased risk of catching a cold or coming down with the flu is very real.
If you’re like me, however, you’re probably always on the hunt for that “thing” to help give you an edge and help you reach the next level.
That “thing” could be anything: a vitamin, a supplement, a tweak in your nutrition plan, sleeping upside down like Batman…literally ANYTHING.
You get the point.
With that said, you should know that I take my post-workout recovery game very seriously, and lately I have been using 1316 Whey because it contains Wellmune.
If you’ve never heard of Wellmune before, it’s basically a natural ingredient that has been shown in studies to help strengthen your immune system and speed up post-workout recovery.
There are several clinical studies out there to back this stuff up, but one of the most interesting studies I’ve read on it involved 50 runners who took 250mgs of Wellumne a day.
Not only did the study participants experience a boost in immunity, but they also showed a 48% reduction in fatigue and a 22% increase in strength.
Those are the kinds of stats any lifter can get excited about and rally around.
3. Get Enough Sleep – Let’s face it, most of us definitely don’t get enough sleep. In fact, many lifters (even experienced lifters) totally underestimate how important sleeping can be when it comes to staying healthy and making gains.
I know that we live in a society that rewards “grinders” and people who constantly work and never slow down to rest…but we are all human here…so if you live your life that way you’re inevitably going to hit the wall and it’s going to hurt. A lot. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Studies have suggested that not sleeping enough may quadruple your risk for colds, and sleeping less than 6 hours of sleep a night is linked to a higher rate of illness.
A lack of sleep can also decrease the body’s ability to fight infection, regulate hormones, manage stress, as well as process carbohydrates.
The bottom line: getting enough sleep (1) helps you stay physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy (2) helps you perform better in terms of strength and endurance; and (3) helps your body heal and repair itself.
Pro Tip: keep in mind that the aforementioned study does not necessarily prove that insufficient sleep actually causes you to catch a cold, but it does build on prior investigations that have linked poor sleep habits to a weakened immune system and a potentially higher risk for developing chronic illness. Also, this study evaluated non-athletes, and athletes likely need to get even more sleep than the general population.
4. Keep Your Nutrition Game Strong – If you’ve made it this far, you probably take your lifting and nutrition stuff very seriously, so you probably already know how important diet can be when it comes to making progress and staying healthy.
So if you’re consistently training hard, be sure to stick to a diet that provides you with enough vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and calories to help you (1) power through those tough workouts; and (2) support your immune system so you can recover, grow, fight off infections, and stay healthy.
Keep in mind that there is no perfect template to follow because we are all different and may be affected by different variables, but despite all of the complexities that may come into play, the fundamentals remain the same.
I recommend building your healthy meal plan around lean proteins, healthy carbohydrates, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats, while limiting overly processed foods, refined sugars and grains.
Here are a few examples from my current meal plan:
Proteins: Chicken, Bison, Salmon, Sea Bass, Turkey Breast, Egg Whites
Carbs: Jasmine Rice, Oatmeal, Sweet Potato, Yams,
Veggies: Zucchini, Cabbage, Asparagus, Broccoli, Cucumber, etc.
Fruits: Berries, Pineapple, Watermelon, Mango, Oranges, etc.
Healthy Fats: Coconut Oil, Avocado Oil, Olive Oil, Avocados, Nut Butters (Almond, Cashew, Macadamia, Peanut).
These are just a few examples, but if you’re looking for something more detailed, feel free to check out my full meal plan.
At the end of the day, what you put into your body, and when you put it in, matters.
Meal timing, macros, ingredients, etc not only support your progress in the gym, but also help keep you healthy and strong outside of the gym.
Pro Tip: Studies have shown that supplying the body with adequate carbs during + after heavy, intense, or prolonged exertion can counteract exercise induced immune suppression. In plain english: carb up to give your immune system a boost.
Pro Tip: I don’t have a ton of hard evidence to back this up…but I am a firm believer that gut health plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy immune system…and I am fairly confident in my own empirical evidence. I have been using probiotics consistently for the past 3 years and haven’t had a serious cold (or flu for that matter) ever since. You can read more of my thoughts on gut health optimization here.
5. Keep Your Hands Clean – I know this one should be super obvious, but may folks out there still don’t get it.
In fact, I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I see (especially at the gym) do their business in the bathroom and then leave without washing their hands.
I know that sounds super nasty, but before you rush to judge these folks, keep in mind that all of our hands are dirty to a certain extent because germs are literally everywhere.
Of course, a strong immune system usually handles most of these germs for you, but you can reduce your risk of getting sick even more simply by washing your hands.
You see, most viruses are spread by direct contact, and your hands are often the main vehicle for which these germs are spread.
This is especially important to keep in mind when you are in the gym…where germs literally everywhere and you use your hands for just about everything.
Since we are constantly touching things in the gym, there is a fairly good chance you’ll eventually come in contact with the same piece of equipment that the ‘nasty no hand wash guy’ from the locker room used earlier.
Remember, your mouth, nose, and eyes are the primary places that most cold and flu viruses enter the body, so try to avoid touching your face and ALWAYS wash your hands after your workout or after being in contact with someone who is sick.
Pro Tip: Pack a bottle of hand sanitizer in your gym bag so you can kill the germs on your hands after you finish using a piece of gym equipment. Just try not to overdo it.
So what do I do if I get sick?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll still end up getting sick – and if you’re like me you’ll probably still have the urge to train despite feeling like total crap. My advice? Don’t do it!
I have learned this lesson the hard way, unfortunately, as attempting to train through a viral infection many years back only made my symptoms even worse and eventually landed me in the emergency room.
Little did I know that training through an illness could have serious negative outcomes like pneumonia, mono, or even worse…myocarditis, which is inflammation and damage to the heart muscle.
Trust me, it’s better to just take a few days off than have a regular cold turn into something super nasty.
If you’re not sure when to just chill, my general rule now is: if the illness is mild and just in my head (stuffy nose, mild sore throat, light headache) I’m probably going to avoid training super hard but will do some light cardio (like walking) or stretching if I feel up to it.
However, if the illness is below my head and I’m feeling like total crap (coughing, fever, chills, body aches, exhaustion, etc) I am definitely going to rest and you won’t find me anywhere near a gym. Not only would my workout be a total waste of time, but I would be acting like a total selfish asshole by exposing the other gym members to whatever I had.
My advice is to just stay at home, drink plenty of fluids, try to sleep, and use some over-the-counter stuff as needed to help with your symptoms.
When can I start training again?
If you have missed time from the gym due to a cold or flu…you’re probably dying to get back in there and start throwing weight around like the true savage that you are – but I would advise you to gradually work your way back into it.
Colds usually last around 5-10 days, but you may need as much as 2-3 weeks to fully recover from the flu, depending on how bad it was.
What I like to do after being sick is start out with a short session (20-40 minutes) at moderate volume and intensity and then take a rest day.
Pro Tip: If I am feeling super tired and weak after the one rest day I will usually take an additional rest day.
I typically repeat this process 2-3 times until I am 100% free of all symptoms, but I will always stop training and return to rest mode if any the symptoms start to return (relapse sucks trust me).
Also, I will extend this process for an extra couple of days if I was sick for a week or more.
There are no hard guidelines for easing your way back after being sick, you will have to experiment and see what works best for you – but hopefully the prevention tips we discussed here today will work and you won’t ever have to even worry about it.
Thanks for reading – I truly hope these tips work as well for you as well as they have for me over the years.
Now it’s your turn: What are you doing to strengthen your immune system and stay healthy right now? Do you know of any great tips I may have missed? If you’ve gotten sick this year, what did you do to help yourself get healthy again? Were you able to train through it? Drop a comment below and share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you.
Aric A. Prather, Ph.D., Mary A. Carskadon, Ph.D., Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold; September 2015, Sleep
Michael Gleeson, Journal of Applied Physiology, Published 1 August 2007, Vol. 103 no. 2, 693-699
Barbara C. Gärtner and Tim Meyer, Vaccination in Elite Athletes, Sports Med. 2014; 44(10): 1361–1376. Published online 2014 Jul 2. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0217-3
Brian K. McFarlin, Katie C. Carpenter, Tiffany Davidson, & Meredith A. McFarlin, Baker’s Yeast Beta Glucan Supplementation Increases Salivary IgA and Decreases Cold/Flu Symptomatic Days After Intense Exercise; Journal of Dietary Supplements; Early Online:1-13, 2013