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Feeling Sick After A Race?

Feeling Sick After A Race Run Tri Bike Magazine Dr Leah Roberts

You’re most vulnerable to falling ill 72 hours post-race. Here’s how to avoid feeling sick after a race.

When you crossed that finish line, you had never felt stronger. But less than two days later, you’ve never felt sicker. What gives?

“If you’ve raced and developed an upper respiratory tract infection the following day, you’re not alone,” says Dr. Leah Roberts of SteadyMD. “You’re most vulnerable to getting sick 72 hours post-race.”

When the body is stressed, it produces increased levels of cortisol, a hormone that suppresses many of the body’s defense mechanisms against germs. This happens whether the stress comes in the form of a pressing deadline at work or an argument with a spouse. Race day, however, takes stress to the max with a complex recipe of physical effort, mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation before an early start, and pre-race nerves. By the time the race is over, it’s more than just the legs that need some time to recover.

Though training is designed to prepare the body to cope with the demands of race day, it’s not an identical effort, and your immune system knows it: “High-intensity training sessions are geared to simulate race conditions, but nothing can replace the actual race experience and stress,” says Dr. Roberts.

Instead, Dr. Roberts says protecting and fortifying the body when the immune system is particularly weak can go a long way in avoiding post-race illness.

Tips To Avoid Feeling Sick After A Race

Eat Up

Post-race, the most important immune booster is food. “Rehydrate and refuel with carbohydrates, which help to decrease the production of cortisol.” The jury is still out on whether antioxidants decrease inflammatory markers during this stage, but in general, it’s a good idea to pick fruits and vegetables over processed foods. Skip the mega-doses of Vitamin C: “Multiple studies have failed to demonstrate that vitamin C supplementation pre-race or during increased training have boosted immunity,” says Roberts.

Reduce Your Risk

“The effects of high cortisol and decreased immunity are greatest eight hours post-race,” says Dr. Roberts, “but several studies have shown that the immune system remains weakened 72 hours post race.” During that time, take extra steps to avoid germs–this means frequent hand-washing and avoiding environments where the risk of exposure to illness is high, such as airplanes.

Get A Flu Shot

A flu shot is recommended early fall to protect through the winter months. The vaccine isn’t perfect and doesn’t provide a 100 percent guarantee, but experts agree it’s the best bet for avoiding influenza.

Sleep, Sleep, Sleep

“Sleep is huge,” says Dr. Roberts. “Repeated sleep deprivation, or less than 6 hours of sleep per night, decreases immunity by 50 percent.”

Avoid (More) Stress

It will be hard for your body to return to health if you keep dumping more cortisol into your system. If possible, take it easy for a few days after the race. Some ideas includ:

  • Avoid travel
  • Use a vacation day at work
  • Do activities that relax you. A little relaxation goes a long way in keeping you happy and healthy.

You just put forth quite a bit of effort and energy and the recovery process is imperative to allowing the body to repair itself. Follow these tips to help you avoid feeling sick after a race.

Leah Roberts Emergency Medicine Physician Run Tri Bike Contributor

Dr. Leah Roberts is a board-certified, Emergency Medicine physician with a special interest in female endurance athletes and preventative primary care. She holds a BA in biochemistry from Barnard College, a MS in Nutrition from Columbia University and a MD from Temple University School of Medicine. She did her her Surgical internship at Temple University Hospital and her Emergency Medicine residency at Cooper University Hospital (Camden, NJ). Dr. Roberts currently splits her clinical time between practicing in the Emergency Room at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Somerset and and as a primary care physician with SteadyMD. Dr. Roberts is a regular contributor to and a ten-time IRONMAN (IM) finisher (PR 9:47) with an amateur win at IM Lake Placid 2018. She is also a four-time IM World Championship qualifier, a three-time Olympic Distance World Championship competitor and an IM 70.3 World Championship qualifier.

Dr. Roberts is currently the team physician for IRACEALIKEGIRL Endurance Team.