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!

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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.

 

The Friday 5k Challenge!

iphone pics 335I’ve always had a hard time being motivated to exercise on Fridays. It’s the end of the week and I’m usually tired from working all week, as well as from my mid week workouts. Nothing sounds better than hitting snooze and sleeping in as late as possible. And working out after work on a Friday?! Yeah right!

A couple of Fridays ago I somehow found the motivation for a short run and during it I had a revolutionary (in my mind at least) idea: The Friday 5k Challenge! It’s simple, every Friday during the winter (so technically December 21-March 21) you run 5k. This is not a New Year’s Resolution, but a fitness motivation challenge so you can start whenever…but once you start you have to do it every Friday. No weather excuses. If it’s too cold or snowy for your liking then hit a treadmill. And it doesn’t have to be just running. Walking, snowshoeing, or even hiking are acceptable. As long as you’re on your feet and moving continuously for 3.1 miles it counts (so no biking or skiing, sorry!).

Now, if you’re an endurance athlete you are probably thinking “Just 5k?! That’s too easy!” I know ultrarunners run 5k’s in their sleep, literally during races, so it doesn’t have to be only 5k. Feel free to go further should the mood, or your training schedule, strike you. The distance may be small but the challenge is in doing it every single Friday. No excuses! I’m hoping this will become a big thing one day, so spread the word!

Will you take on the Friday 5k challenge with me?!

TidBit: Blowing Balloons Can Strengthen Your Lungs

My nemesis

My nemesis

Introducing TidBits, because frankly, sometimes I have something I want to share that doesn’t necessitate a whole blog. Today, it’s a revolutionary (insert some sarcasm) new idea I had about blowing up balloons to increase lung strength.

The idea came to me last week, as some coworkers and I prepped for a birthday celebration for a fellow RD. I bought an assortment of balloons, and as we blew them up we discovered that one particular kind was ridiculously difficult to inflate. We huffed, we puffed, we turned bright red and almost keeled over from lightheadedness, barely to inflate a forth of the balloon. It was hilarious to watch each other struggle. Eventually we figured out some tricks- if you stretch the balloon it helps, for instance- but in the meantime I started thinking about how this balloon blowing struggle was probably helping to strengthen my lungs….and what if it could be used on a regular basis to strengthen my lungs even more?!

Turns out it’s already a real thing. A quick google search yields several articles on the topic of blowing up balloons to increase your lung capacity and strength. Any balloon will do, but obviously the more difficult it is to inflate the harder your lungs will have to work. Why should you try it? Because blowing balloons forces you to use the intercostal muscles, which are responsible for spreading and elevating your diaphragm and ribcage when you breathe. Strengthening these muscles allows your lungs to expand and take in more oxygen, a clear benefit for any athlete, especially those of use who like to run at high altitude.

It’s quite simple too compared to the elaborate training schedules many athletes follow. Start by fully inflating 2-3 balloons per day (or the same balloon 2-3 times) and work your way up progressively to 10-15 per day. Working out was never so fun!

 

 

Accepting my First DNF

marathon photo

Pre race photo stop

Running is an inherently selfish sport. We do it for us, whether that be for our physical health, our mental sanity, or just for our own enjoyment . I think most runners know this, and many even accept it. It’s not a bad thing, it just is what it is. But it’s come into play for me this week, as I struggle to accept my first DNF. Even though I know there are much bigger problems in the world then a failed marathon, I can’t help but feel sad about it. And then I feel bad about feeling sad, because it is such a minor thing in the grand scheme of things. So why doesn’t it feel that way?

I put in a decent amount of training for what was to be my marathon debut. Sure my training wasn’t perfect but it was overall good. I tapered right. I ate well. I had a plan for my pacing and race nutrition. I felt generally prepared and excited for it. I started to get nervous when I saw the weather forecast though. It was to be in the low to mid 80s the day of the race. I don’t like heat, and I certainly hadn’t been training in it. Mentally, this threw me for a loop. The morning of the race I felt more anxiety than excitement. Sure there was some excitement, but instead of my usual pre-race nerves (the kind that are actually helpful) there was a looming dread. Whether that was normal or an omen of what as to come I’m not sure. Did my pre race dread factor into my DNF? Who knows.

The race started off well enough. I started with the 3:55 pace group since my goal was to finish in under 4 hours. I felt good the first few miles and actually pulled a bit ahead of the pace group. I was going a bit faster than I had originally planned but it felt manageable. I wouldn’t say I felt good at any point in the beginning of the race, but I felt okay. Then around mile 6 or 7, as the heat began to sink in, I went from feeling okay to “meh”. By the half marathon check in I was struggling mentally with the heat and boredom but I was around 1:55 and still on target to break 4 hours. Somewhere in the next 3 miles things started going downhill fast. It got warmer and there wasn’t much shade (at least not comparatively for someone who likes to run in forests!). I continued to struggle mentally with not knowing the course or what to expect from the terrain. I felt incredibly bored and was questioning why I signed up for a road race. Around mile 16 to 17, two gels in, my stomach started to feel off. It wasn’t nauseated at first, but something was not right. Sick of not feeling well, after I crossed the mile 17 sign I started walking. The fact that I was walking morally defeated me and was the beginning of my true undoing. Although I had planned on just walking a bit, the next 3 miles turned out to be mostly walking. I tried to jog here and there but it made my stomach feel worse. I watched the pace groups pass me- 3:55, 4:00, 4:15. Soon even trying to jog felt pointless. I walked and contemplated how the heck things had fallen apart so badly. I had been prepared to push myself. Prepared to hurt. But not prepared to feel sick. And then, shortly after I passed the mile 20 sign, I started dry heaving. I pulled over to a patch of grass, sat down, and threw up. Luckily for me (but not them) I had gotten sick in front of a very nice group of spectators. They gave me a bottle of electrolyte drink, and a nearby race official called over the medics.   My vitals were fine and I actually felt a lot better after getting sick, but it didn’t seem like a good idea to try and continue, and frankly I didn’t want to. I was done. The very nice group of spectators gave me a ride to the finish where I met up with my friend who had done the half. She tried her best to console me by telling me how many times Paula Radcliffe and Kara Goucher have DNF’d, and it helped a bit. But when I called my family to tell them of my failure I was a mess. I felt as if I had let them down, in addition to myself. How could this happen? I can run a half marathon up a 14,000 foot peak with a decent time but I can’t finish a marathon at sea level?! I tend to pride myself on being a strong woman, both mentally and physically, but in that moment I felt weak. I felt dumb. And I felt sad. There was nothing left to do but cry.

I was pretty sad the rest of the day but with time, and maybe physical distance from the race venue, I feel better. Am I still bummed about how things turned out? Yes, but I think I’ve found acceptance. DNF’s suck, but basically every runner has one somewhere on their record. I’m hoping that months down the road I’ll look back at this as one of those situations that makes you stronger in the end.

And of course, there are always lessons to be learned. I’ve learned the importance of paying attention to electrolytes and hydration in the heat and humidity-which I already knew but for some reason did not apply. But mostly I’ve learned that I belong on the trails, not the road. I belong in the mountains, not on the beach. Will there be another marathon attempt in my future? I’m 99% sure there will be, but you can sure as heck bet it will be on the trails where I won’t be focused on time and pace…and I might even have fun!

Running and Your Immune System

DSC03178          My training for my first marathon had been going pretty well, until I caught a cold during what was supposed to be my highest mileage week. So as I work on accepting that I will be running my first marathon with my longest training run only being 18 miles (I’ll be well rested!), I’m also pondering how my training has impacted my immune system. 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 runner 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). 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!