There are plenty of theories surrounding how to prevent and treat the common cold but which, if any, are true?
According to Mike Gleeson, professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University, athletes are not necessarily at greater risk of catching colds — “apart from when the athlete participates in a very prolonged, fatiguing endurance session or competitive event, when the immune system becomes temporarily depressed and this can increase infection risk.”
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During a particularly hard training week, and especially straight after a gruelling session, you are most susceptible to catching a cold.
If possible, spend the hours after hard training away from anyone with a cold and make sure you get warm and dry straight after your ride.
What about when you do catch a cold? A commonly heard rule of thumb among cyclists is that it’s OK to continue training if the symptoms are above the neck, whereas you should stop if they are below the neck. However, this depends on the level at which you are training.
“For people who are not professional athletes, it is sensible to avoid any hard exercise when cold symptoms begin,” says Gleeson, “and to only restart hard exercise when symptoms start to get better. It is not essential to stop exercise altogether but any training session should be shorter and less intense than usual.”
Treating and avoiding colds: the essentials
- Reduce exposure after hard training
- Eat fruit and probiotics
- Vitamin D3 and vitamin C supplements may help prevent colds
- Consider taking zinc supplement while you have a cold
- Get at least 7hrs sleep
Sleep better, ride faster
By the time you realise you have a cold, your body is already fighting the infection, so depressing your immune system through hard training could prolong the infection.
It usually takes a week or two to recover from a cold. Certain supplements have been shown to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.
“Zinc supplementation and herbals such as echinacea may be effective,” Gleeson suggests.
How to give virus’ the cold shoulder
Are there any proven remedies to prevent a cold? “Regular ingestion of probiotics, fruit, vitamin C and vitamin D3 supplements can reduce infection incidence in highly active people,” explains Gleeson.
As a cyclist, you can also reduce your chances of contracting a cold by “avoiding sick people, crowded areas, children and contaminated items and practising good personal hygiene,” says Gleeson.
Generally looking after yourself by eating and resting properly is also important. Gleeson advises: “Consume adequate energy in the form of carbohydrates, protein and micronutrients, get enough sleep [at least seven hours per night] and minimise other sources of life stress.”
Key points for treating and avoiding colds
Do: stay hydrated. The lymphatic system carries immune cells around the body, while mucus protects nasal, mouth and gut linings from infection. Both require water to do so.
Do: sleep at least seven hours a night. Sleep is essential to recovery and immune health; stressed and unable to fight infection.
Do: wash hands regularly, especially before eating. Avoid touching mouth, eyes and nose to help stop any viruses entering your body.
Do: reduce other life stressors when in hard training to limit overall stress on your body. All kinds of stress affect your immune system’s capacity to fight infection.
Do: eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and healthy fats to ensure a plentiful intake of micronutrients. This will keep your immune system at full strength and help you recover from exercise.
Don’t: ride hard and long straight after a flight. Give your body a chance to fight any cold virus you were exposed to.
Don’t: Get cold. If your core temperature falls while training, you are more likely to get ill. Use a neck-warmer and layers you can remove.