We sat down with Dr. Susan Kräftner from Biestmilch to take a closer look at the correlation between a functioning immune system and endurance performance.
A lot of issues you tend to ‚just accept‘ in daily life can easily be reduced and help you to a stronger and faster performance in your next race or adventure. Despite the simple fact of even more joy in daily life!
Enjoy the read and don’t forget to comment about your own experience!
“Endurance and Immunity
Peak performance needs the immune system functioning
Not in a good mood? Your day was stressful? You got up at 5 a.m., went for a run in the dark, dashed around at work all day and went for a swim late in the evening? Then you didn’t sleep well, got up at 5 a.m. again the next day, etc, etc… Are you often confronted with either having a bad conscience for not training enough or filling your day up so much that you are worried you might collapse?
Do you suffer from similar problems every year: head colds, a flu, pains in the groin, in the back, knee and no one knows where they come from? And on top of it all, training is not showing any progress? And your motivation is going through the floor? Horror scene? Exaggerated?
Maybe. But some of you have certainly gone through the whole range of horrors. To always feel great as a triathlete on the edge of your performance limit is quite tricky. It is a balancing act where you can easily loose your balance. Counting calories, dividing these up into carbohydrates, proteins and fats is one thing, but the distribution of energy is another. The distribution of energy that is produced in the metabolic processes is not regulated by the intake of calories but by a number of regulatory processes.
The magic word is regulation
When the performance limit is constantly provoked, the body is permanently challenged to remain in balance. To achieve this goal, perfectly well trained regulatory systems are required. It is a difficult task not to overexert or underchallenge body and mind. Beside regular training, body and brain have to be given the necessary time to recover, which is a very individual thing.
Triathlon is often pure stress merely due to the training volumes it requires. Thus it demands an optimal biological stress response. The best athlete is the person whose stress response is best optimized. If immune system and nervous system as well as hormones are at the peak of their performance, then regulation is robust, and your body is performing well. That means that each system itself works optimally and the cooperation between them too. What does that tell us?
The immune system is first of all a regulatory system, not a defense system.
The regulatory systems guarantee that the heart, cardiovascular circulation and respiration, the skeletal muscle etc. adapt to the requirements. They also guarantee that energy stores are activated, that blood sugar levels remain stable, as well as body temperature and blood pressure. The regulation processes ensure that the muscles can do their job, and that enough energy is provided for all vital organs.
The immune system is activated within the first minute of stress. It releases a large number of factors (cytokines), which induce the adaptation of energy distribution within the body according to its needs. If there is an ongoing healing process – healing having top priority when it comes to energy distribution – then energy is lacking for other processes. That is why already minor health issues draw enough energy to make you feel weak and tired during a workout.
Delayed healing processes and proneness to injury due to a weakened immune system
It is well accepted that physical activities, meaning moderate workouts activate the immune system and thus prevent illnesses. Yet as a triathlete, you belong to those athletes who are under physical stress and thus often present dampened immune activation. Endurance training always goes along with minute lesions of the muscles and other tissues. Torn muscle fibers trigger inflammatory reactions that need healing. Inflammatory and healing processes are both domains of the immune system. If recovery periods are insufficient, then healing of these micro-injuries fails. If flawed healing becomes a chronic condition, then immunity turns weak. The known consequences are proneness to injury, pains without physical substrate, delayed healing processes or increased susceptibility to infections.
Injuries and infections are drawing energy like parasites
In the case of endurance athletes it may happen that the condition of the immune system resembles that of tumor patients. The immune system may then run into a situation of complete exhaustion. An overtraining syndrome, a chronic fatigue syndrome or a viral infection such as glandular fever can develop.
Metabolic regulation, wound healing, or preventing infections are not the only domain of the immune system, so is our behavior. It is also influenced by the immune system and its release of immune factors such as the inflammatory cytokines (interleukin-1, tumor-necrosis-factor and interleukin-6). They force us to slow down. Who would be able to understand this phenomenon better than an athlete trying in vain to access his/her best performance. A simple cold can prevent someone from unfolding his/her full potential. Listlessness, exhaustion, sleeping disorders, loss of appetite and weight are typical symptoms that can be triggered by the effect of immune factors (cytokines) on the central nervous system.
The immune system is involved in many games and actively present at many front lines
Again, above all, the immune system is a regulatory system. In the scope of endurance performances and stress, it influences the metabolic regulation to a great extent and thus the energy allocation. During the recovery phase, it coordinates the healing processes and contributes to the build-up processes by influencing metabolic adaptation. At the same time it fulfills its well known tasks as defense system, and cares for wound healing.
As a triathlete, you should pay attention to the warning signs of a weak immunity. You shouldn‘t push your body any further, if you notice the following: prolonged recovery, unusual fatigue, lip herpes, sleeping disorders despite being tired, lack of appetite, weight loss despite sufficient intake of calories, pain symptoms without any obvious injuries (typical are back pain, pain in the groin or knees), badly healing wounds or increasing susceptibility to infections and injuries.These are only a few of the phenomena indicating a weakened immunity. The great art of training is ultimately to find one‘s own rhythm by switching from training stress to recovery when needed.“
Read more on Biestmilch, immunity and athletic performance on the Biestmilch Blog.