How to avoid infection as an athlete

Athletes must maintain a sound immune system to meet optimal training and performance goals. Nutritionist Rob Hobson explains how to stay safe and healthy.

an athlete's guide to avoiding infection

Athletes are often put at risk from opportunistic infections because of dietary insufficiency, environment or personal hygiene habits. This can put triathlon training and racing in jeopardy. 

Advertisement

Athletes who engage in strenuous, prolonged exertion can experience exercise-induced immunosuppression, putting them at greater risk of infection.

The types of infection athletes are most likely to be exposed to include those of the upper respiratory tract, skin infections and tummy bugs.

Diet and immunity

Crash dieting and restrictive diet regimes should be avoided to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies impacting immunity.

It is well established that deficiencies in protein and certain micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamins B6 and B12 can incur immune dysfunction.

Still, excessive intake can also impair immune function, so it’s about achieving a balanced diet, and to do this, food should always come first.

Consuming carbohydrates during exercise can lessen the increase in stress hormones such as cortisol, limiting the degree of exercise-induced immunosuppression for non-fatiguing bouts of exercise.

This is a better approach than a high fat, low carbohydrate diet.

Supplements

Credit: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Vitamin D is closely linked with immunity, and low levels are associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections to which endurance athletes are particularly vulnerable.

It isn’t easy to maintain healthy vitamin D levels during the winter, which is why supplements are recommended.

If you’re travelling abroad, consider a course of probiotics a couple of weeks beforehand to help reduce the risk of tummy bugs and travellers’ diarrhoea (try Elite All Blacks Multi-Strain Pro20 biotic – £12.99 for 30 capsules).

Travelling

If you are travelling to an event, whether in the UK or abroad, you may want to prepare your food and snacks, as well as drink bottled water, to avoid any risk of food poisoning.

It is also essential that you maintain reasonable standards of personal hygiene by washing your hands regularly or using an antibacterial hand gel.

Sleep is essential for recovery and a lack of it may be detrimental to your immunity and put you at greater risk of injury.

If you struggle with jet lag or sleeping away from home, then try to adopt some simple sleep hygiene strategies you can use when staying away from home.

Personal hygiene

Though skin infections may not be life-threatening, maintaining good personal hygiene can help athletes avoid skin infections and the spread of viruses.

They can still cause irritation which may impact performance. During long events lasting more than a day, athletes should carry with them a simple first aid kit to help bandage wounds and prevent infection.

Good hygiene habits include:

  • Shower thoroughly with soap after all training and races. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitisers. If your hands are visibly dirty, wash thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Do not share towels or other personal items such as clothing, razors, or equipment. Since these items can become contaminated and spread disease, regularly wash items after each use.
  • Avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages.
  • All cuts and other abrasions on the skin should be washed with soap and water and covered with dry, sterile bandages. These bandages should be replaced daily until healed.
Advertisement

Athletes should be aware of the importance of maintaining good immunity and apply this knowledge to the different settings they find themselves in during training and competition.