By Mara Abbott Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
The more stress you put on your body, the more care is required to sustain performance and heath. Here are five immunity-boosting tips to keep you going strong until the daffodils are up and the springtime birds are chirping.
Eat for immunity
Cold salads, green smoothies, and celery sticks seem a touch less appealing when munched while bundled up in a wool sweater, but it’s important to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables year-round to maintain your immune system’s strength. Seasonal finds like carrots, sweet potatoes or winter squash, and hearty greens like kale, chard, or collard greens are all loaded with vitamins and minerals – and many can even be locally sourced throughout the winter.
One time-saving idea is to prepare a big pot of a veggie-loaded soup or a pan of roasted vegetables on the weekend, so that it just takes a quick reheat to enjoy nutritious meals or snacks throughout the workweek. I often make quick, lazy-woman winter soup by heating up some greens, a protein choice like tofu or leftover chicken, and some pasta or rice into a store-bought broth for a five-minute meal.
A strong-believing contingent will tell you that garlic has particularly strong immunity-boosting properties – and there is even some science to back up that theory. Toss extra garlic in your soups, stir-fries, and roasts for a double health-flavor boost.
Up your sleep and recovery
Any time you increase your training load, your body needs extra rest in order to recover and benefit from the new strain. If you are sleep-deprived or otherwise depleted, your immune system will be depressed and less agile at fighting off opportunistic viruses.
This same principle applies to your nutritional habits. Try to be extra diligent about getting a recovery meal or drink in right after hard or long workouts to ameliorate the cumulative stress you are putting on your body. If you’re feeling under-the-weather, it might be a good idea to steer clear of nutritionally-fasted workouts as well – even if they are a regular part of your training program – in order to make sure you have enough energy to keep all systems running strong.
It’s harder to remember to drink in a season that leaves post-ride jerseys more icy than soggy, but it’s still important to make sure you are on top of your hydration during winter training. Staying hydrated not only helps to keep up your athletic performance, it helps you maintain your body temperature, keeps mucous flowing to trap germs, helps your body flush out waste materials that could compromise your immunity. Our fluid losses don’t only happen through sweat, but also through respiration – and dry winter weather can exacerbate that effect. Make sure you drink before, during, and after your workouts, whether or not there are puddles of sweat involved.
Try to get some fresh air
There isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence that cold temperatures alone can get you sick, though they do present an additional physical stress. It’s possible that staying cooped up in a gym, spinning studio, or kid-filled basement with lots of wintertime germs is even more threatening to your wintertime health.
When you can, try to take your workouts outside to breathe in some clean air – being outdoors can help reduce stress as well as decrease your exposure to germs. Icy roads and short days can make accomplishing outdoor workouts tougher in the winter. But when it is safe and possible to do so, take the opportunity to bundle up and get out in the sunshine (plus, you get Vitamin D!).
Rest your mind
Mental stress also has an impact on our ability to fight illness, and packed schedules seem be as much of a holiday tradition as wrapping presents. For myself this December, rather than committing to extra workouts I’m going to attempt the personal gift of caring for my mental health.
My goal is to spend at least 30 minutes each day dedicated to emotional recovery, whether that takes the form of journaling, taking a warm bath, taking a slow, purposeless neighborhood stroll, or – the hardest for me – sitting down and meditating. This is going to be a big challenge for me, as I confess I spent perhaps 30 minutes total during November engaged in restorative practices. I know all too well that my performance depends on both my mental and physical fitness – so I see this as an important opportunity to make gains in both happiness and strength.
By Mara Abbott
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor