Sick While Tapering? Here’s Why & Ways To Prevent It

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Training for a marathon requires several months of hard running, at least decent nutrition, and adequate sleep. The last two to three weeks are extremely important to the training cycle, as it is when the body prepares for race day by enhancing recovery while maintaining the fitness gained throughout the prior months. The goal of this taper period is to get the body to a more relaxed state and fueled for race day. To reach this goal, there should be a gradual drop in mileage and heavy weight lifting, as well as proper nutrition. Many runners use this time to lounge on the couch and go overboard on the carb-loading, but it should be more structured than that! A drastic change in routine during the taper is not such a good idea because the body has been used to tackling loads of miles and exercise and a diet to sustain that activity level. It may shock the body and possibly cause illness. The common occurrence of illness during the taper period may be due to other reasons as well.

Overtraining Syndrome

Studies have been done to assess the response of the body’s immune system to physical activity. There is not much evidence to conclude that properly trained and recreational athletes are more susceptible to illness than non-athletes. However, there seems to be an effect on immune function with prolonged intense physical activity. The strongest correlation is the susceptibility to illness and the over-trained athlete. Overtraining syndrome is when there is insufficient rest with a high volume of physical stress, and many times this is combined with other stressors such as emotional, nutritional, and environmental stress. If this pattern continues, after a certain time chronic fatigue will set in along with poor recovery.

Low Plasma Glutamine

Over-trained athletes often present with low levels of glutamine in the body. Glutamine is an amino acid that is responsible for the healthy functioning of lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that keep our immune systems working properly. With low levels of glutamine, athletes who are undergoing intense physical stress, as in overtraining syndrome, are more susceptible to infections. Although the main focus to prevent a drop in lymphocyte function is to avoid developing overtraining syndrome, glutamine supplementation is an option to keep levels where they need to be.

Post-Exercise Immunosuppression

There is a drop in some aspects of immune system functioning following exercise, especially intense exercise, such as a long cycle or run. This window of opportunity for infections can last between 3 to 72 hours. Some studies have shown that over-trained athletes who have a combination of stressors may extend this window even longer than a three-day period. This may be a reason why illness arises during the taper period. Our hardest training is performed right before the taper begins and with a window of opportunity extending to three or more days, we are more susceptible to falling ill. This is where proper nutrition may be of assistance. It is beneficial to have a wholesome diet full of the essential vitamins and minerals the body needs to lower our risk of acquiring infections.

Tissue Damage

Intense exercise causes tissue trauma that triggers higher levels of cytokines in the blood due to chronic inflammation. Elevated cytokines will causes a suppression of certain lymphocytes that are responsible for immunity. This occurs mostly in over-trained individuals who do not properly recover. A protective response of the body is automatic behaviors that will lead the athlete to lower training intensity. This is due to the communication of cytokines with the brain to induce mood changes and fatigue in an individual.

Taper Illness Recovery & Prevention

The first plan of action to prevent taper sickness is to avoid falling into overtraining syndrome. Throughout the several months of training it is vital to incorporate enough rest time. Not every body is the same. Some tolerate less recovery than others. It is important to keep in mind that without proper recovery, our bodies cannot perform at their best. As mentioned above, good nutrition should also be a top priority every day during training. A diet full of essential nutrients and vitamins is key to keep our bodies working properly, as well as maintaining a low risk of acquiring infections.

If you are reading this while you are already sick and in the midst of your race taper, then the best action to take is to get plenty of rest during this time and drink a good amount of fluids. Nutrition is extremely important during illness, as our bodies require more energy to assist in the healing process. Appetite may be low or nonexistent during sickness, but it is vital to make sure to eat enough calories and make sure it is all from high-quality foods! The taper will require continued training runs at a lower intensity and volume, but if your illness consists of fever, body aches, and chest symptoms, it is best to take a few days off from physical activity. If symptoms are from the neck and above, such as a runny or stuffy nose and headache, it is usually safe to head out for easy runs. Remember, the taper period is not meant to improve performance and taking a few days off will not lower your fitness levels. Forcing running during this time while you are sick may only prolong your illness and negatively affect your race day outcomes.

Sources

  1. Elena Papacosta and Michael Gleeson, Effects of Intensified Training and Taper on Immune Function, Journal, Dec 29, 2017
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