Every runner wants to avoid getting sick, especially when training season gets into full swing, so we asked our resident running GP to give us his thoughts on how to avoid getting sick.
To limit the chance of getting an infection we first have to know how infections are spread.
The most common routes of illness transmission are:
- Airborne /Droplet spread
- Through food and water
- Insect bites
- Airborne spread infections are one of the most common and easiest ways to spread infections. Most of the viral infections like Influenza and the common cold are spread this way. These can occur in areas where there are large groups of people. The contact does not have to be direct, but can be casual contact. Places like shopping malls, airports, aeroplanes, cinemas, restaurants, open plan offices, concerts, schools and areas where you have poorly maintained air-conditioning units.
Wearing a face mask could help decrease the chances of disease transmission.
- Touch and Contact spread infections occur with direct contact with an infected person like kissing, hugging, shaking hands and sexual contact or touching an article that an ill person has touched. This would include hand rails, door handles, escalators and elevator buttons. Diseases like conjunctivitis (pink eye), Sexually transmitted diseases and viral infections could fall under this category.
Using a hand sanitiser frequently would help with touch related infections.
- Through water and food ingestion. This group consists of food that has not been properly cooked or correctly stored, food that is reheated (in restaurants) or food that has not been thoroughly washed. Water that has not been properly purified can also spread infections. These diseases include Hepatitis A, cholera, typhoid and E. coli.
- Insect bites would include malaria and yellow fever. Avoiding countries and areas where these occur would limit its transmission.
So, if you are training for an important race, in essence, avoid crowded areas, avoid areas where you are in contact with commonly touched objects, limit travel and be careful of what food you are eating and what you are drinking. Again, the above could decrease your chances of getting ill.
General precautions like having a ‘Flu’ vaccination before winter could lessen your chance of contracting influenza or a secondary infection like Pneumonia. Some top athletes will even quarantine themselves before important races. No contact = no infections.
To improve your immune system before a race the following will also help:
- Avoid overtraining
- Increase your sleep time
- Rest enough
- Hydrate yourself well
- Decrease stress at work
- Eat a balanced diet
- Do not change your normal routine
It has been shown that during hard training your white blood cell count is lowered (part of your immune system). This can make you more vulnerable to picking up an illness.
Immune boosters are simply not effective and you can end up spending plenty of money at the pharmacy on fancy looking medication. If they did work and were effective, none of us would ever get ill!
What is important is that our immune system needs to be challenged to become immune to infections. If we were to live in a plastic bubble and not touch or breathe normal air, our immune system would actually get weaker. What I have therefore said about avoiding infections should be adhered to before a big race and while training for it, but at other times letting one’s body be exposed to certain infections could actually strengthen your immune system. (This is one reason why Doctors do not get ill – we are constantly exposed to a variety of different infections over an extended period of time)
I hope this will help you. Happy running!
Detlev is a GP in private practice and an avid runner himself. His practice is based in Jukskei Park in Johannesburg.