Working out with an infection
The reason for an infection is not – as many people assume – that there are more viruses and other pathogens “hovering around” us in autumn and winter than in spring or summer. In the colder season the risk of catching a common cold is higher because in addition to the microbes in the air there is less daylight, and hence less vitamin D in our bodies. So our bodies have to work harder to compensate for temperature differences and the dry air produced by heating. We spend less time outdoors and more time with other people in enclosed spaces, where viruses multiply faster.
During every high-intensity workout there is a short-term suppression of the immune system. This is referred to as the “open-window phenomenon” since this suppression basically opens a window for pathogens to the body. In winter this phenomenon has a stronger impact because our bodies not only struggle with the workout stress but are also exposed to increased stress due to lower temperatures and lower air humidity. The impairment of our immunological defence, however, strongly correlates with the intensity of the workout. With low intensity the short-term weakening of the immune system is even followed by its strengthening. Only when the workout exceeds three hours does the low-intensity workout negatively impact the immune system. This means the immune system needs far more time to recover from high-intensity training. Especially in winter this can open the door for a variety of seasonal viruses and other pathogens.
Viruses are tricky, especially the pathogens that cause influenza. Every year in autumn and winter these viruses change, i.e. mutate. This is also why a new flu vaccination is required every year since last year’s vaccine no longer works. Unlike the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) in the US that recommends flu vaccination for everyone aged sixth months and over, the standing vaccination commission of the Robert-Koch Institute only regards vaccination as worthwhile for persons aged 60+ and for health professionals or people in occupations with high public exposure.
Colds rarely improve with workouts. On the contrary, sports slow down our body’s ability to recover from illness. Unfortunately, it is a persistent myth that we can “sweat out” a cold or influenza. As soon as we realise that we are falling ill we should start avoiding intense physical stress. Our resting pulse is the best indicator of how severely our body is affected. As soon as the resting pulse is some 7 to 10 beats higher than normal, we can only complete short sessions in basic endurance sports. However, they do not produce any health benefits; in a worst-case scenario the infection can even get worse. Once the resting pulse is 15 beats or higher than normal physicians strongly advise against working out!
Those listening to their bodies slowly trying out what works and what probably does not, are generally doing the right thing. Those not trusting their body sensation 100% can do two of the following things to find out whether they can return to the gym or not:
- The uvula test: For this test the ill person poses in front of a mirror and says “ahhh” out loud. If the uvula is longer or bigger than usual, if its vessels are clearly visible on the surface and if the throat is red and swollen, then the person should wait before returning to their sporting regime.
- Resting pulse: As soon as a normal resting pulse is reached when the flu symptoms are disappearing you can start working out again. Over the first days and weeks the training should be controlled by the heart frequency as a function of stress. The general rule: it is best is to start with a moderate low intensity to make sure the infection does not break out again. The more training data are recorded for comparison, the easier it is to assess the stress reaction
What consequences can excessive workouts have during infections?
In general, it can be said that sporting activities substantially delay regeneration during common colds. And the longer and more intensely we subject ourselves to physical stress the higher the risk of causing an inflammation of the heart muscle, so-called myocarditis. This would be a disastrous and could even lead to life-threatening complications. Nobody should run that risk!
Only ten years ago it was assumed that this combination is detrimental to health. Now we know, however, that moderate sports sessions can be performed even under antibiotics treatment. Here again, it is key to manage physical stress by the heart frequency. In general, the use of painkillers such as Aspirin or Ibuprofen before workouts should be discouraged. Although the symptoms of a condition might be “numbed” short term, the source of the infection remains! Painkillers prolong bleeding time to such an extent that even the smallest injuries or contusions increase the tendency of heavy bleeding. Furthermore, these active substances are proven to damage our liver and kidneys.
The old saying goes that a flu-like infection lasts about seven days. If we use all cures available, it probably still lasts a week. Which goes to show that modern medicine does not really help to reduce “downtime” here. According to studies, the plant-based preparation Umckaloabo® derived from the South African Capeland geranium can shorten recovery by one to two days.
It is worth following common sense here: drink plenty of fluids, wash your hands regularly, prevent the body from cooling down and make sure to take in enough micro-nutrients and vitamins. Those wanting to exercise despite the rain and/or cold outside and intent on a high-intensity session should schedule the HIT for the last third of the overall training. Then jump under the hot shower as soon as possible to make sure the body does not cool down even further.
- Arginine: keeps the gut healthy (70% of our immune regeneration occurs in our intestines!).
- Glutamine: is required for forming special lymphocytes and is a key substrate for the intestinal mucosa.
- Glycine: is needed for the production of antibodies.
- Lysine: plays a central role in immunocompetence and can probably help to fight herpes viruses.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Dr. Lutz Graumann is a sports physician who treats members of the armed forces, elite sportspeople and clients from industry worldwide. He is currently acting President of the “International Association of Performance Medicine”. His publications regularly appear in trade magazine and books.