Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Training during illness

Following the immunity theme, and while cold and flu viruses are doing the rounds, I thought it would be sensible to do a piece on how athletes can manage their training during this time. We all know that athletes are tough cookies, especially endurance athletes, and try to get out and train no matter what.  This, however, is a bad idea when you have a cold or virus! It is better to back off for a few days rather than end up with a much more serious condition.

One general rule is that light exercise is OK if all symptoms are above the neck, including a mild sore throat, stuffy nose and headaches. If any of the symptoms include a very sore throat, fever, fluid in your lungs, coughing, body chills and aches, exhaustion, diarrhea or vomiting, athletes should take a day off from training. If complete rest is more than you can handle, light general stretching may help.

If athletes are too ill to train, athletes should rest, drink plenty of hot fluids and still try to eat healthy, even if there is no appetite.

Once the below-the-neck symptoms have resolved, athletes should wait an additional day before resuming training.  The initial workout should be a light recovery-paced session, as should all exercise until all of the above neck symptoms disappear, and resting heart rate has returned to normal. Gradually build the intensity and duration of the sessions, paying attention to recovery, hydration and nutrition.

Hopefully the disruption to your training will be minimal and a regular routine will shortly follow. You won't loose a substantial amount of training in the 5 to 7 days that it normally takes to overcome a common cold.  In fact, with adequate rest and recovery, you may come back stronger than ever.

Related Posts:
Christmas and the Immune System
BCAA and Immunity
Immunity and the Athlete

Friday, 26 December 2014

Turkey Leftovers

Turkey is an excellent, low-fat source of protein.  And at this time of year there is no shortage of it. Turkey and stuffing sandwiches can become a little monotonous though, and so, in this post I'll share what I did with turkey leftovers for luch today.  Please add your turkey leftover suggestions as comments below.

Turkey Wraps

1. Stir fry peppers and onions in a little bit of olive oil
2. Add strips of cooked turkey.
3. Add sliced tomato and heat gently
4. Thinly spread some pesto on warmed wraps
5. Place a generous helping of the turkey mix in the wrap
6. Top with some diced feta
7. Fold and serve

Peppers and onions are excellent sources of vitamin C, and together with tomatoes, provide a range of other antioxidants.  Turkey is high in essential amino acids, and feta, a relatively low-fat cheese, is also high in protein.  This is a great light lunch/protein replacement meal for after workout.  Add some fajita or Cajun spices to the turkey for an extra tasty treat.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Day: To Train or Not to Train

This seems to be an annual question: should you train on Christmas Day, when your rivals might be taking a day off, or should you sit back, relax, and enjoy the festivities.

The purpose of this post is not to tell you what you should do. I don't know your life, so it would be wrong for me to advise either way. Like everything to do with 'lifestyle' you've got to decide what works for you.

When I was a teenager, we looked forward to Christmas Day because it was the only day that we were sure would have a 'REST' next to it on our training programmes. There was usually even a few exclamation marks, reiterating the fact that we could have a guilt-free day off.

But as years passed by and running became a bigger part of my life, I realised that I no longer 'had' to take the day off. With Christmases devoid of little people and the associated excitement, we found that we needed something to fill the Santa-shaped void in our Christmas mornings. And so, for myself and my brother, the long Christmas morning run on the beach has become an important ritual.

Last year, due to a number of factors (and in the absence of my regular Christmas morning running partner), I even ended up doing a fartlek session on Christmas morning. Did I feel guilty for training hard on Christmas morning? Of course not! Why should I? Do I think that everyone should train hard on Christmas morning in the fear that if they don't, their rivals might be streaking ahead?  Absolutely not!

A much used quote at this time of the year is the one by double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson who once said 'Train twice on Christmas day! Your competitors may only train once.' While I appreciate Thompson's sentiment, I don't believe that we all have to listen to him. Firstly, 99.99 percent of us are not Daley Thompson, nor will we ever be. Secondly, it's not that one day in the year that makes the difference - it's the other 364. And thirdly, it's no coincidence that a considerable number of athletes don't make it to the Olympic start line. In an effort to do more than their rivals, they forget the importance of rest and recovery and end up injured. This is, of course, the fine line that every top athlete walks along, and a balance that is difficult to strike, but 99.99 percent of athletes - serious or not - won't be affected by taking one afternoon off in the whole year. In fact, relaxing might just be what you need to improve your performance.

I love to run, and I don't see why I should deny myself a 10 miler on the nicest beach in the world on a day that has become all about over-indulgence. But I'm not everyone, and not everybody has access to the most beautiful beach in the world.  And so, I just have one piece of advice - if you do rest on Christmas Day, don't feel guilty; and if you train, enjoy it!

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas and the Immune System

While we are on the theme of immunity and staying healthy over Christmas, here are a few pointers which may help with immunity during the busy festive time, when the normal training routine is often disrupted.

Christmas is the season to celebrate; there can be lots of late nights with visits and Christmas parties to be enjoyed. A lack of sleep, too much stress, eating poorly and being in contact with people who may be ill, all increase the risk of illness.

1. Stay hydrated

Make sure that you drink plenty of water as well as your other drinks so you stay hydrated and try to drink water as soon as you can when you wake up to rehydrate.

2. Plan when you train

With clubs and sports centres taking closed over Christmas, athletes often have greater flexibility with when they train.  Plan your training so that hard sessions don't follow late nights.  It's also a good idea to train in the morning before visitors and distractions makes you have to choose between doing your training and enjoying Christmas.

3. Moderate your diet

Some of the foods associated with Christmas do offer good nutritional content, its just about moderation and not over indulging in the bits - such as chocolates and sweets - which may have a lower nutritional content.
  • Cranberries - High in Vitamin C, which is great for immity, and anti-inflammatories
  • Turkey - Good source of protein and is often leaner than other sources of meat protein
  • Parsnips - Excellent source of Potassium, which regulates hydration and is involved in muscle contractions
  • Salmon - Sometimes an alternative choice at Christmas and a good source of omega 3 fats
  • Carrots - Excellent source of antioxidants, beta-carotene, Vitamin A and Vitamin C
  • Brussel Sprouts - Often a Christmas must - but are also a great source of Vitamin C
  • Walnuts - Perhaps cracked open as a post-lunch snack - but a great source of Omega 3 fats
Fruit salad, dried fruit and salads are also good, nutrition-packed food options, which offer some protection against Christmas colds and viruses.

So enjoy your Christmas meal and the celebrations.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

BCAA and Immunity

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece on how to improve immunity during the winter months, focusing on training load and recovery, environment, psychology, clinical conditions and diet and lifestyle. In the coming weeks, I will look in more detail at the nutrients that can improve immunity, and outline ways to ensure adequate intake and variety of these nutrients to maintain health and help training and recovery. I'll kick things off by referring to a blog post that I wrote earlier this year on Branch Chain Amino Acids, a vital group of nutrients for health and recovery.

Peanuts and almonds are both good sources of Leucine, one of the three Branched Chain Amino Acids.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Process Goals

Earlier this year, when delivering a workshop on goal setting, I used my athletics goal for the year to demonstrate the characteristics of a SMART goal. My goal was to go to the European Masters Athletics Championships at the end of August, compete in the 2,000m steeplechase, and win a medal. The goal excited me, it was measurable and timed, challenging yet achievable, and I was, at that time, committed to it.  I knew what I needed to do to achieve my goal, and was committed to regaining some of the speed that I'd lost in recent years.  I didn't need to be in the shape of my life, but I needed to be running better that I had been in recent years. And that was real key to my goal.

Process goals are all about the things over which we have complete control.  They deal with the technique or strategy which is necessary to perform well.  They are usually used to establish that route to achieving outcome goals.  They help to focus attention, and because they have nothing to do with uncontrollable factors they can help to control anxiety.  Examples of process goals in a race setting might include: running at 6-minute mile pace; mastering water-jump technique; carrying out a predefined warm-up routine.  Over the course of a season, a process goal might be to get into shape to run a 7-minute 2000m steeplechase.

As the summer progressed, I slowly got quicker.  Because of the slightly unusual international competition schedule this year, my track season started earlier that usual, but knowing that my main target race wasn't until the end of August, I patiently worked my way into shape, staying focused on getting faster and racing better.

Then, before I knew it, it was time to enter the European Masters Championships that I had so being looking forward to.  But there was a problem.  I was broke.  I was due a couple of payments that would have covered the entry fee, but would have left me without any money to live on for the next few weeks.  And then I would have to come up with money for the flights to Turkey, and for the accommodation.  I lay awake for hours the night before the entry closing date.  I had to come up with a solution.  I had looked forward to this event for so long.  And yes, I would come up with the money somehow.  But it all came down to a matter of priorities.  Did I want to spend all my money on one week in Turkey, to (possibly) win a medal in an age-group European Championships, when there would be European or World masters championships for me every year until the end of my running life.  Could my goals wait?

Sometimes, our goals can conflict with each other.  It then comes down to a matter of priorities. What do we really want to achieve, and why? What is most important to us, both in the short- and long-term?

As I lay there thinking, I realised that the outcome was not the important part to my goal.  That one goal that I'd set at the start of the year had other purposes.  The processes that I needed to go through to achieve it (i.e. getting faster) stopped me fearing the 1500m and 3000m, and I was getting stuck into races like I used to do when I was young. Rather than fret about getting old, I embraced turning 35 and gaining 'master status'. I realised that a medal would mean very little to me if I still wasn't running as fast as I felt that I could.  I still wanted to compete with the seniors.  True, I was disappointed, but I wasn't going to let that disappointment ruin my year.  I was going to make the best of the rest of the season.

On Sunday 10th August, I won the Irish Masters 3000m Championships.  My winning time, 10:15, was the fastest that I'd ran for the distance in 13 years.  Though my outcome goals weren't going to be achieved, my process goals were.  And that's why they are so important.  Process goals can help us achieve outcomes that we don't even realise are possible.

Other aspects of goal setting were discussed in our previous blog posts: Goal Setting: The Key to Lifestyle Management? and Goal Setting - Part II.  When you sit down to set your goals for 2015, don't just set outcome goals.  Add some process goals too. Perhaps they will help you achieve things that you don't even think are possible now.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Immunity and the Athlete

Helping to maintain training during the winter months

An immune system which operates within homeostatic limits protects against common illnesses that can impair an athlete’s ability to train and perform.  Ensuring adequate carbohydrate and protein intake, a well as adequate intake of a wide range of micro-nutrients will help maximise the immune system's ability to protect against illness.  Improving immune health should be based around a five point plan:

1. Training - Load and Recovery

Adequate rest, alongside appropriate training, will ensure there is the right balance of overload and adaptation. Too much training with too little rest will lead to athletes becoming run down, and more prone to illness and injury. Sometimes, taking a day off when you feel run down or 'under the weather' may help prevent having to take a week of down the line.

2. Environment

There are some things that you cannot control, such as the training environment. However, you can be prepared. During the winter months, when the weather is likely to be colder and wetter, dress appropriately and keep warm whilst training and during warm up and cool down. Remember, just because it is cold, doesn't mean you don't sweat, so still pay attention to fluid levels and hydration, and ensuring that you shower and change out of damp clothing as soon as possible after training.

3. Psychology

High levels of stress and anxiety will also lead to a higher risk of illness. Try to reduce the risk of these feelings by focusing on things you can control, such as managing your time and meeting deadlines.

4. Lifestyle (Sleep, Diet, stress)

Be organised, ensure there is adequate rest and focus on healthy eating, meeting carbohydrate needs, adequately refueling, and choosing a wide range of fruits and vegetables.

5. Clinical conditions

There will be bugs and germs, and sometimes the sports environment is a perfect breeding ground for these to spread. Pay attention to good hygiene habits especially washing hands to reduce the risk. 


Athletes can be quite quick to turn to vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent illnesses and time out of training. However. these should not be the first thing that the athlete looks to, and careful thought should be taken before this step is taken.
  • What is the likely benefit of the supplement, or the likely harm?
  • Are there any interactions between the nutrients, supplements and medications?
  • What is the evidence supporting these supplements
  • What is the cost, availability, and risk of contamination for the both the sport and the individual

In future posts I will look at some of the nutrients which are thought to reduce the risk of illness (including Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Pro-Biotics, Glutamin, Zinc and carbohydrates), supporting claims for supplementing with these nutrients, and natural dietary sources for these nutrients.