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4 Ways Athletes Can Improve Immune Health

Staying healthy and avoiding illness has been on the top of all our minds these days. Now that fall is here and temperatures are dropping, this means that in addition to COVID we also have the flu to contend with. Getting sick can cause an athlete to miss out on valuable training and competitions for days to weeks at a time. No one wants to be sidelined from their sport. While illness cannot always be 100% preventable, there are some essential practices an athlete can put in place to enhance the body's immune response to decrease their chances of getting sick.

Thankfully, nutrition to improve your immune response is not complicated. Just implementing these 4 DO’S and avoiding the DON’TS will help you to decrease risk of illness and time away from your sport this fall (and let's face it, all year long). Exercise is amazing for you body for many reasons, including an enhanced immune system. However, exercise, especially at higher intensities, can leave you more vulnerable to infection if you don’t effectively care for yourself. This is why implementing the right strategies to minimize illness is important to athletes wanting to avoid getting sick. Here are my 4 tips to improve your immune health.

1. DO Eat Enough and Refuel with Carbs & Protein ASAP Post-Workout. DON'T Underfuel.

An underfed athlete is the singular most detrimental thing you can do when wanting to avoid illness. Eating enough macronutrients and refueling ASAP after a workout will give your body the nourishment it needs to recover from workouts as well as the strength to fight off sickness. Under-fueling can happen both unintentionally and intentionally. Restrictive, fad diets are never a good idea for an athlete. Even a deficit of 250-300 calories per day for just 5 days may cause disruptions in your body's essential biological processes like immunity*. Skipping meals, snacks, or postponing your recovery nutrition after a workout could result in under-fueling.

Even if you are eating frequently (i.e. multiple meals and snacks), this does not automatically mean it is enough. A latte is not a meal, nor are Doritos a snack (at least, not on their own!). You can help set yourself up for success by having at least a source of carbohydrate, protein and fat at each meal, and a minimum of carbohydrate and protein at snacks. Some things to consider about your current eating pattern if you are unsure it is meeting your energy needs;

  • Are you missing one of those essential nutrients listed above at meals & snacks?

  • Is your plate TOO fiber-rich? Fruits, vegetables and other high fiber foods are great, but you can have too much of a good thing. Fiber can make you feel full without providing much energy, and can then cause unintentional under-fueling.

  • If you have eliminated certain types of foods due to an allergy, intolerance, sensitivity, has it been diagnosed by a reputable source and how have you replaced the missing nutrient(s) by using other foods/supplements?

Nutrition ASAP after a workout is essential to begin the recovery process. After a workout your body is extended, tired and vulnerable. Delaying this essential nourishment leaves your body more susceptible to infection. I typically recommend my athletes plan their recovery nutrition within the hour post-workout. The key macronutrients to include in your meal/snack is AT LEAST a source of carbohydrate and protein. If you don't do this perfectly every time, that is OK. Something is better than nothing.

protein pancakes
One of my FAVORITE all time post run meals. Protein pancakes from Kodiak Cakes with blueberries, topped with peanut butter, banana, and cinnamon.

2. DO Eat Antioxidant Rich Foods. DON'T Just Supplement and Call it Good.

Exercise induces oxidative stress in the form of free radicals (i.e. infection agents) in the body. Eating foods rich in antioxidants is a way we can help tame these free radicals from getting out of control and causing illness. Antioxidants help remove free radicals from the body to keep us healthy and avoid sickness. Foods rich in antioxidants includes fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds.

I say this statement almost daily to my athletes, "where can you fit in more plants?" "Where can we get in more fruits and vegetables?"

athletes and vitamin C

Some of the most antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables include; bell peppers, oranges (and their juice!!), broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, strawberries, potatoes and more. Here are some tips to fit in more of these antioxidant rich foods into your day;

  • Smoothies! You can dump a whole bunch of fruits & vegetables to make a refreshing and antioxidant rich drink.

  • Make them taste good to you. If you like ranch with your carrots, use it! If you like butter mixed in with your steamed broccoli, use it! There is a place for all foods, and if dipping vegetables in ranch or mixing with butter is your jam, it's better that you do that than not have any vegetables or fruits at all!

  • Frozen vegetables & fruits are just as good for you as the fresh versions! They last longer and can be prepared in minutes. If you find your fresh fruit continuously spoils before you get to it, or don't always have time to prepare them, this could be a great option.

3. DO Incorporate Rest Days. DON'T Think Rest is "For the Weak".

Over-training can impact your health and performance. It affects your ability to sleep, hunger/fullness cues, gut health, and can increase oxidative stress and cortisol (stress hormone) - all things that will decrease your body's immune response and increase risk of illness. Training & our workouts are necessary to improve endurance capacity and/or strength capacity, however, rest is still a necessary part of recovery. There must be a balance, even with high training volumes, that incorporates at least 1 full day of rest within the week.

Are you type A? I'm type A. Or maybe you are mostly Type B with some Type A tendencies. Do you relate to having a hard time just sitting down? Hi, hello, we are the same person. It can be hard to wrap our minds around the fact that sitting down and allowing your body to relax from the fight or flight mode (i.e. productivity/exercise) contributes to improved performance and a healthy immune system. How can you expect your body to be able to do all the things all the time? You can't!

4. DO Get at least 7-9 Hours Sleep Each Night. DON'T Stay Up Multiple Nights in a Row Partying with Friends or Scrolling TikTok.

Sleep is critical to recovery by allowing your brain and your body to rest and rebuild. A couple (or handful) nights of insufficient sleep will not instantly make you sick, but is the accumulation of nights that may leave your body more vulnerable to illness. Chronic poor sleep will have cumulative negative effects on the immune system, increasing susceptibility to infection. This is especially true during high training volumes shown in research around endurance athletes**. I know it can be difficult to balance ALL THE THINGS while also chasing your goals. Here are some practical tips you could try to improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Turn off technology an hour before bed.

  • No more caffeine after 3pm.

  • Drink tart cherry juice before bed.***

  • Decide on a realistic time you can actually go to bed EACH night, and stick to it!

And of course, wash your hands frequently!

Thanks for being here,

Maddi Osburn RDN LD



*DOI: 10.1111/sms.13030

**Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2014, 46 (5), pp. 1036 - 1045

***Howatson, G., Bell, P.G., Tallent, J. et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr51, 909–916 (2012).

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