Boost your immunity: seven strategies to keep you riding healthily

Cold and flu is sweeping over the Northern Hemisphere with the ferocity of a Van Aert kick. But, as you’ll discover, every recreational cyclist can benefit from a septet of health-strengthening nutritional and training strategies…

As expected, the first winter since 2020 that full Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted has seen a rise in influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a seasonal virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms. It’s why the UK is currently losing more work days to flu, cough and cold-related infections than Covid-19. Reassuringly, regular cycling has proven to strengthen the immune system. Why is not 100% clear but studies have shown exercise increases the production of macrophages, which are white cells that attack the bacteria that can trigger an upper respiratory disease. Regular cycling also lowers stress hormones in the blood, like adrenaline and cortisol, which can both impair immunity. But we’re not immortal (okay, maybe Wout is). Here, we chart scientifically proven ways to keep riding strong and long…

1. Garlic provides a breath of fresh air

Years ago, we interviewed Dr Rob Child, who used to provide nutritional advice for MTN-Qhubeka and then Katusha. "When I was working with Katusha, one of my proudest achievements was finishing a Grand Tour with a full pack of riders," Child told us. "And that was heavily due to favouring garlic over painkillers. Why is down to its anti-inflammatory nature, rather than painkillers that, while masking the pain, lengthen a fully healed return to health."

Garlic’s also the perfect food to beat sickness thanks to an antimicrobial compound called ‘allicin’ with one UK study suggesting allicin supplements cut the chances of colds by 46%.

Read more: How the pros train in the winter

Ginger is also shown to strengthen your winter defences. Turmeric is another health booster as it reduces inflammation, boosts bone health and improves digestion. We’re also aware that Team DSM doctor Anko Boelens is an advocate of multi-vitamins, fish oil and zinc when a rider is feeling unwell. 

2. Greater vaccination effect

It’s flu season. That means vaccination season for many, especially the older cyclist. Covid boosters are also offered for the over-50s. If you’re a sceptic, there’s a persuasive argument that you shouldn’t be. A study by the University of Bath’s John Campbell and James Turner, entitled Debunking the myth of exercise-induced immune suppression: redefining the impact of exercise on immunological health across the lifespan and featured in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, highlighted that "…at least eight studies have demonstrated heightened vaccination responses in older athletes, typically over 60 years of age, who are physically active".

The authors go onto show that older athletes deemed active – undertaking at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three or more times per week – exhibited higher levels of antibodies post-vaccination than sedentary folk. In short, if a vaccination’s lined up, rest assured that your superior levels of fitness will supplement the needle.

3. Keep a lid on it

On December 8 2022, the editor of Sporting Intelligence, Nick Harris, Tweeted: "Remember Dr Richard Freeman’s medical tribunal? Started in Nov 2019 and lasted literally years. His appeal hearing took place on Mon and Tue of this week. Written verdict of whether his fitness to practise medicine is impaired expected in about a fortnight." Well, at time of writing (January 10 2023), we still awaited that verdict. Freeman, you remember, was struck off the medical register due to misconduct including ordering testosterone patches during his time at Team Sky. 

Before the inquiry into his and the British team’s medical practices took place, Freeman wrote a book, The Line: Where Sport and Medicine Collide. In it, he charted the hygiene protocols that he set in place at both Team Sky and British Cycling, which every recreational rider can apply to their own performance. "You’re just as likely to get an upper respiratory tract infection or gastroenteritis from shaking hands with somebody who’s infected, as being sneezed on or eating food prepared by the person who’s infected, so we avoided," Freeman wrote.

Freeman also brought in a toilet-lid policy. "If there’s an infection in the toilet and you flush it with the lid open, you create an aerosol effect, so even if you’ve exited the bathroom or cubicle by the time that happens, you risk getting it on your toothbrush, so the next time you brush your teeth, you can pick up an infection."

4. Bolster your ‘D’efences

Vitamin D’s the sun-kissed wonder and is associated with bone strength and a strong immune system. The body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight, which is why the NHS recommend taking a daily vitamin-D supplement from October through to March. But there’s certainly an argument for lengthening that period of supplementation when you look at a 2015 study in the Journal of Science & Cycling where the researchers analysed the serum vitamin-D status of 65 elite professional cyclists across both road and mountain biking.

Over five months from April to the end of August, blood samples were collected and analysed from the riders who remained training on Portuguese soil. Of the 65 cyclists, just 36.9% had vitamin-D levels that were deemed sufficient, which was anything over 32ng/ml of blood. 

"The cyclists who participated in this study trained outdoor," the authors wrote. ‘However, the results show that the vitamin D status is far from being the most suitable. We have to realise that, despite the sunny days, cyclists wear more clothes to protect every part of the body from cold during the outdoor training session. So, the ultraviolet-B radiation will not be so effective during this period of time."

The authors also cited further studies of riders at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France where vitamin-D levels were beneath the 32ng/ml optimum, possibly due to the swathes of suncream used. All in all, there’s definitely a case for taking vitamin D all-year round.

5. Fuel not fast

Fasted training sessions have become an off-season staple for professional cycling teams, the idea being that by ‘starving’ the body of carbohydrates, it adapts to burning more fat for fuel via increased cell signalling, gene expression and training-induced increases in oxidative enzyme activity. The repercussions of this cellular overhaul are that precious glycogen stores are spared for key high-intensity moments of races.

How do you safely deplete your body of glycogen? There are several models (albeit mainly for elite and cat-one riders) and include: arguably the most practical, which is a morning ride where breakfast is consumed after; double training day where you tick off a morning ride to slash muscle glycogen followed by several hours of reduced carbohydrate intake so that the ‘pm’ session starts with low glycogen levels; and potentially the most effective but most debilitating model where you’d undertake an evening training session, restrict post-exercise carbohydrate intake during overnight recovery and then complete a fasted session before breakfast.

Fasted rides need to be conducted safely, or they can do more harm than good to you immunity (Getty Images)

It's a proven method to hit race weight but it’s not the panacea, certainly not for the majority of recreational riders. You see, the problem is that this starved riding places significant stress on the body. One of the reasons why is that good-quality complex carbohydrates naturally contain high levels fibre, vitamins and minerals that help to regulate our immune response. Fail to fuel up and your immunity drops, leading to more harm than good. If you’re keen to ride fasted during this heavy flu period, limit to no more than 60-90mins a week and carefully monitor how you feel.

6. Manage your intensity

Cycling can forge a body carved from the gods, bolstering both physical and mental health. Unfortunately, heavy training can also result in an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). This is broadly an infection of the parts of the body involved in breathing, so lungs, airways, throat and sinuses. Despite Team Sky’s militant stance on hygiene, a URTI ruined Bradley Wiggins’ hopes of winning the 2013 Giro d’Italia, the Brit withdrew before stage 13.

Why heavy training seems to be the root cause is reportedly down to the J curve theory, which plots the relationship between exercise and immunity. The y axis of the J curve graph is ‘URTI risk’ and the x axis ‘exercise workload’. Nominal or no exercise sees an individual’s chances of picking up an URTI as normal. As exercise cranks up to moderate levels, the chances actually drop (hence, the curve in a ‘J’). But as exercise intensity continues to crank up, the chances of enduring an URTI rise and rise until they’re at two- to sixfold levels over the sedentary individual. 

What can be done? Well, following a progressive, balanced training programme via the likes of TrainingPeaks is a good start, albeit that requires a power meter. Broadly, not hammering every ride will help. And spending time indoor training will help, too. This isn’t for intensity reasons, it’s more that a cold outdoor ride can irritate the airways. That’s because cold air lacks moisture. Alternatively, keep riding outdoors but, if it is rather cold, wrap a buff or similar around your mouth to create moisture every time you breathe. It’s not the most comfortable feeling so will naturally keep your intensity down, too.

7. Road to recovery

Of course, even the most diligent immune-boosting rider can fall foul to infection. If you do and are displaying cold-like symptoms, follow the advice of Antony Hackney, professor of exercise physiology at the University of North Carolina. On day one of illness, avoid strenuous exercise, drink plenty of fluid and stay warm.  On day two, if symptoms worsen, no exercise and rest. If no fever or worsening of symptoms, then light exercise of 30-45mins allowed. Day three – if fever and symptoms persist, see a doctor. If no fever or worsening of symptoms, then light exercise of 45-60mins allowed. On day four, if no symptom relief, no exercise and continued rest. If relief (first day of improved symptoms) and no fever, then light exercise of 30-45mins. You should use the same number of days off as the number it’ll take you to return and step up to normal training. You should take additional days off if starting to feel ill.

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