Strengthening Your Immune System

photo(19) I’m always paranoid about getting sick during the week or two before a big race.  And in the past I have gotten sick during hard training cycles or immediately after a hard race. Moderate amounts of exercise are generally thought to help boost the immune system, but when you are training hard and long, such as for a marathon, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. So what’s the deal?

Turns out that longer duration exercise impacts the immune system in several ways. One of the main issues is that stress of any kind, including exercise, stimulates the body to produce cortisol and other stress hormones which suppress the immune system. In small amounts your body adapts to the stress and comes back stronger, but it doesn’t always get a chance to do that when in the peak of training for an endurance event. Additionally, studies have found a significantly reduced amount of killer cells, a type of white blood cell that helps fight invading pathogens, in runners who just ran a half marathon. Those cells remained reduced for up to 24 hours, suggesting that runners are at an increased risk of infection in the day or so after a race. Other studies have hypothesized that athletes are most vulnerable for up to 72 hours after a race or hard workout.

So what’s a PR seeking athlete to do?!

Of course many of the main recommendations for runners to stay healthy are the same as for the general public:

  • Limit exposure to sick people (as much as possible at least).
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (remember to sing Happy Birthday). Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, where germs can easily get into your body.
  • Manage other possible stressors in your life. Practice yoga or meditation or even seek out a therapist if you feel particularly stressed about other aspects of life.
  • Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep at night. Studies show a decrease in immune function with <6 hours of sleep a night. Athletes should probably aim for 8-10 hours.

Additionally, athletes should:

  • Make sure you are taking rest days in your training cycle.
  • Build up your mileage at an appropriate rate to minimize added stress.
  • Limit your post race high fives and handshakes (if you’re really worried).

You should also pay attention to your nutrition for improved immune function:

  • Eat a well balanced diet.
  • Fuel adequately during workouts and training sessions. If you are running longer than 90 minutes make sure you are fueling yourself with adequate carbohydrate (30-60 grams per hour is the general recommendation but it really depends on the person so consult a Sports RD!). When your body does not get enough carbohydrate during prolonged exercise cortisol and other stress hormone levels are raised more than if you fuel properly.
  • Make sure you are practicing good recovery by having a recovery snack that contains carbohydrate and protein within 30 min of finishing tough training sessions and races.
  • Hydration is also important, as water helps flush out the system. Your urine should be pale yellow to clear.
  • Include plenty of fruits and veggies in your diet. Antioxidants found in fruits and veggies help fight free radical damage. The vitamins and minerals help support the immune system. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” didn’t come from nothing!
  • Make sure you are getting adequate protein in your diet. Aim for 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 150 lb athlete that would be 82-109 grams of protein each day.
  • Make sure you are getting plenty of vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, and zinc, as these are key players involved in maintaining immune health. It’s best not to rely on a supplement, so focus on diet first.  Try strawberries for vitamin C, sweet potatoes for vitamin A, almonds for vitamin E, and pumpkin seeds for zinc. Or just try the recipes below!
  • Consider probiotics. You gut is really one of the first lines of defense for your immune system, so make sure it is healthy and happy.

Add a protein to these two recipes and you have a complete immune boosting meal!

Spinach Salad with Strawberries and Pumpkin Seeds

(Makes 1 salad)

1-2 cups spinach, washed and bite sized

1 TBSP pumpkin seeds (out of the shell!)

½ cup strawberries, quartered

1 oz Goat or Feta cheese

½ TBSP olive oil mixed with ½ TBSP balsamic vinegar


Roasted Almond Sweet Potatoes (from the Almond Board of California)

(Makes 6 servings)

4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubessweet potato

3 TBSP olive oil

4 large garlic cloves (also thought to help boost immunity!), minced

1/3 cup fresh thyme leaves

½ tsp kosher salt

½ cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients and toss. Arrange potato slices into a single layer on a heavyweight rimmed baking sheet or in a 9×13 inch baking sheet. Place on the top rack of the oven and roast until tender and slightly browned, about 40 minutes. On another baking sheet, spread out the slivered almonds. Place in the oven and toast until lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes. Remove the almond baking sheet and the sweet potatoes. Mix together in a serving bowl and serve warm.

Stay Healthy!

Why You Shouldn’t Overlook Watermelon

IMG_2843Summer is winding down, but it’s not too late to enjoy one of summer’s favorite fruits- the watermelon. Known mainly as a side dish at picnics that provides mostly water, watermelon is not just delicious but also chock full of nutrition.

What kind of nutrition does watermelon offer? It’s true it has a high water content, so at over 90% water, it is a good option for hydration. It’s also full of potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. Watermelon contains small amounts of magnesium, vitamin B6, and fiber as well.  And at only 46 calories per cup, watermelon is great option for those trying to lose weight or maintain their racing weight.

Watermelon contains many phytonutrients (compounds found in plants that are not vitamins or minerals but still provide health benefits), most notably lycopene, an antioxidant also found in tomatoes and known for promoting prostate and heart health, among other things.

Watermelon also contains citrulline, which may help lower blood pressure and is of note for athletes specifically for a couple of reasons. First of all, some studies have found that consuming watermelon after exercise may help reduce muscle soreness. Secondly, citrulline may be converted to arginine in the body, which in turn can be converted to nitric oxide, which makes blood vessels relax. Why should you care? Well, nitric oxide is the same substance that the nitrates in beets are converted to, and which have been proposed to help improve exercise performance by allowing blood to move more freely to working muscles. So watermelon in theory could help improve sports performance just as beets do, although probably to a lesser level.  Studies are inconclusive, however, and the amount of watermelon you would need to see a benefit may cause some, uh, other problems. Still it’s something to consider. More studies are needed!

So as you can see, watermelon is a great post workout option. For a perfect post summer workout treat try this: cube a watermelon, sprinkle with salt, chill, and enjoy! Everything you need after a hard workout: fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes (ok hardly any protein but still pretty great) and it even sits well with an off kilter stomach.

Taper Week and Mental Prep

iphone pics 1040Here I am again, the week before a big race.  It’s like the night before a big exam, there isn’t anything I can do now training-wise to prepare myself….or is there?  I’ve always been a big believer in the power of positive thinking, but I noticed something about myself the other day quite contradictory to this statement when it comes to my upcoming race.  When asked if I feel ready for the Pikes Peak Ascent I find myself saying this: “I feel good about my training, I’ve had some great workouts/races lately that built confidence in my fitness and I feel as prepared as I can BUT a lot can go wrong on race day!”  Why is it always that and not “a lot can go RIGHT on race day?” The two are just as likely, especially given the preceeding statement about how good I’m feeling.Why does there always have to be a “but”?  I’m not sure why, is it that I don’t want to jinx myself? Whatever the reason,  I plan on changing that “but”.  I may not be able to change my fitness in the week before the race but I can focus on resting and tapering as well as proper nutrition and hydration. And I can work on my mental game. I’ve written before about visualization and I believe it helps, so I’ll be doing that in addition to staying positive. After all, a lot can go right on race day!

Click here to read previous blogs on Visualization and Mental Toughness and mental toughness.


My Definition of Eating Well

fruit2A recent interview on the topic of orthorexia, or an obsession with eating healthy, got me thinking about my own views on health and eating well. I discussed some of the issues in my blog The Pitfalls of the Quest for Perfect Nutrition so won’t repeat those here.

We are constantly bombarded with messages about the “best” way to eat. Eat this “good” food to be healthy, avoid that “bad” food to feel better! Coffee will make us live longer one day and kill us the next. The messages we receive about food and nutrition are often conflicting and sometimes downright scary.   And, unfortunately, a lot of them come with a lot of judgement about the foods we eat. After spending the past 5 years working with people suffering from eating disorders I’ve come to develop a different, but I feel more balanced, way to look at food and eating. So here it is, my definition of eating well:

At its core, food is fuel. All foods provide energy for our bodies in the form of calories. We freak out a lot about calories, but from a scientific standpoint all they are is a unit of energy. Sure, some fuels are more productive than others, and I’ll get into that in a minute, but I don’t believe in good or bad foods. That is putting a lot of judgment on the food, which often becomes judgment on ourselves if we eat that food. How many of us have labeled a donut bad, and then referred to ourselves as “being bad” when we ate one? And how many of us actually let it ruin our day (or at least part of it) that we were bad and ate a bad food and “wasted calories”? Some of us may have even punished ourselves by going to the gym and working out when we’d rather have been hanging out with friends or family. That’s no way to live! Eating a donut (or whatever other food you think is “bad”) does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person who ate a donut. Maybe even a person who likes donuts, which is no better or worse than a person who likes broccoli. When it comes to being non-judgmental about food I always give the example of fire. Would you say fire is good or bad? Most people immediately think of forest fires or houses burning down and say fire is bad. But for thousands of years fires have helped us cook our food and keep us warm. The same goes for water. Water tends to be thought of as good, and it’s true we need it to survive, but drink too much and you can dilute your electrolytes, feel awful, and even die. Fire is not good or bad. Water is not good or bad. Food is not good or bad. Let’s please stop judging our food and ourselves. It’s not helpful. As Yoda would say “good or bad, food is not. Just is, is food”, or something like that!

Instead of labeling foods as good or bad, I like to describe foods by their nutritional productivity. Some foods are more productive, meaning they are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, essential fats etc) and other foods are less productive, meaning lower in those nutrients. If you are eating well by my definition you are probably eating both productive foods and less productive foods. Notice I am not saying “unproductive foods”? That’s because even foods that are low in nutrients are still providing calories, so still giving our bodies fuel they can use. So all foods fall on the spectrum of productivity. There is really no such thing as “empty calories” as that implies there is nothing in them, which is physiologically impossible. Even soda, often deemed empty calories, provides sugar which your body can use for fuel, and actually prefers for fuel during intense exercise.

So what exactly is eating well? Overall, eating well is choosing from a wide variety of foods. It’s having the majority of your diet come from productive foods, but also allowing yourself to eat less productive foods in moderation because they bring pleasure or enjoyment. And moderation could mean every day. Eating well is not denying yourself any food, as this often leads to over doing it with that food down the road. Eating well is listening to your body’s internal hunger cues while also being aware of how your own emotions or external factors influence your satiety cues. Eating well is letting food be fuel first, but also a way to celebrate and enjoy life. Eating well is moderation-not over doing any one food, whether that food be kale or cake. Eating well is letting food be a part of your life, but not the center of it.

Interview about Orthorexia

I had the honor this week to be part of an interview about the dangers of orthorexia, which is an obsession with healthy eating.  Many people don’t realize that trying to eat healthfully can be taken too far, but it definitely can and when it does has severe physical and emotional consequences.

Watch the interview below.

Simple Green Smoothie Recipe

It’s gegreensmoothietting warm out, and that means I’m starting to crave smoothies again!  I’m a fan of green smoothies because they are a simple and delicious way to get in lots of nutrition.

Below is my favorite recipe:

8 oz coconut milk (or other milk if preferred)
1-2 handfuls spinach
1/2 cucumber, cubed and preferably frozen
1 green apple, cubed
1 banana, sliced and frozen
1/4 avocado

Makes about 16 oz of smoothie.


My New Favorite Snack

ants on a log    When it comes to snacking, I’ve been getting in touch with my inner child lately, and I’m super happy about it! I hate to admit it, but I quite often get stuck in snack ruts. I bring the same old snacks to work, get sick of them, decide not to eat them, and then get so hungry that I find myself reaching for something sugary to quickly satisfy the intense hunger. Now don’t get me wrong, I love sugar and I still believe a sugary treat is fine in moderation, but when I snack on cookies or cupcakes or whatever sugar I can find I’m usually hungry again within the hour and I don’t feel as energized or satisfied as I do when I eat a more productive snack.   So because of this cycle I’ve been perusing the grocery aisles more thoroughly these days, and that is how I discovered my new favorite snack: ants on a log. For those of you with deprived childhoods, ants on a log is celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins on them. And it’s delicious. I first discovered this as a ready-made snack pack at Target, but it was fairly expensive so I decided to start making my own and it’s so simple I had to share!

So here’s why I recommend you try my new favorite snack too:

The taste: The crunch of the celery combined with the creaminess of the peanut butter and a hint of sweet from the raisins is culinary perfection (well maybe not quite, but it’s darn good!). Plus the raisins help satisfy a sweet tooth!

The cost: Celery is super cheap and raisins aren’t too expensive themselves. Depending on if you purchase regular or all-natural peanut butter will determine if the peanut butter is cheap per se, but even all natural is a pretty good bang for your buck when you consider a serving size. I recommend all-natural to avoid trans fat and added sugars.

The nutrition: Although celery gets a bad rep for being plain or “basically just water”, it does provide some important nutrients. Also, the fact that it as a high water content is not bad as this contributes to our daily fluid needs. Celery also provides small amounts of vitamins C, K, folate, and potassium to name a few. It’s also a good source of fiber and antioxidants. Plus, having celery as part of a snack is a good way to increase your overall daily vegetable intake, which most Americans don’t meet the recommendation for (5 servings a day, minimum). In addition to the celery, you get some fiber, potassium, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B-6 in the raisins. Peanut butter is a good source of protein and healthy fats but you could easily sub almond butter (or any nut butter) if that’s your preference.

So in short ants on a log will keep your stomach satisfied and your taste buds happy…and it might just help make your day a little more fun.