My heart broke when Tejay Van Garderen, a leading U.S. bicyclist, abandoned the Tour de France (and his 3rd place position) after 2 grueling weeks. As an amateur triathlete, I felt his pain and anguish. Doctors attributed his lagging performance and departure on Stage 17 to a respiratory ailment. This led me to wonder and research whether physical exercise lowers one’s immunity, whether respiratory ailments are common, and how or whether this could have been prevented.
My go-to medical website, WebMD, provides plenty of research endorsing moderate exercise. Walking 20 to 30 minutes per day or visiting a gym every other day helps our immune systems fight colds and flu. That is because infection-fighting cells (i.e., white blood cells and specifically, T-cells) increase with moderate exercise. Regular moderate exercise can also reduce oxidative stress (those crazy “free radicals” that cause damage at the cellular level).
But what happens with intense exercise, like marathons, triathlons, and multi-day bicycling races? Researchers have found that among elite athletes immunity becomes impaired for a short period. The theory is that intense exercise decreases the white blood cells circulating through the body, increases stress-related hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline that raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and increases oxidative-stress (visit Inflammation and the Immune Function for an easy-to-read discussion).
This helps to explain some reasons why respiratory ailments afflict elite athletes at a greater rate than the rest of us, recreational athletes. Not only do respiratory ailments afflict elite athletes at a greater rate, but respiratory illnesses are often the most common ailment among endurance athletes. (Of the 606 medical consultations of the New Zealand team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 20% were due to respiratory ailments.)
Could Van Garderen have prevented his respiratory illness? Possibly. Tejay was the team leader so he had additional psychological stress. And while there is always the risk of catching a virus, elite bicyclists (and their doctors) must simultaneously manage an athlete’s physical health, mental health, training load (including rest) and dietary intake.
With a 7,000 to 8,000 calorie per day diet, elite athletes must eat foods rich in antioxidants (fruits and vegetables). A multi-nutritional supplement could be further insurance against respiratory illness.
Take heart Tejay, the 2016 Tour de France is just around the corner. I’ll be cheering for you next year in hopes that you have tamed those crazy free radicals.