Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Over the last few weeks I’ve been developing guidelines for the athletes that I work with, to ensure that they get the most out of their training, whilst minimising the potential impact of training on their immune system.
It’s an undisputed fact that moderate exercise is very good for your immune system, with countless studies showing how incidence of illness decreases as training increases. Up to a certain point. And then it gets more complicated.
Much of the press picked up on the one side of the argument that exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system, but this was hotly contested and the overall article concluded that it “remains to be resolved is whether exercise per se is a causative factor of increased infection risk in athletes”. Many previous papers make a strong case that exercise does reduce immunity, for up to 8 hours after demanding exercise. Rather than rehash existing reviews you can find a good summary here.
In responding to the evidence of the impact on immunity, International Triathlon Union has issued a statement on Coronavirus that says "Most importantly, training shall temporarily serve general wellbeing and the maintenance of the immune system, not performance enhancement".
So what's my position?
From my perspective, as a coach my job is to not just prepare my clients to meet their training goals, but to balance this with the rest of their life, so that they get there happy and healthy. I see little point in the perfect training plan if the athlete is miserable because they don’t have time for the rest of their life, or if they’re always ill or injured.
In the context of Coronavirus we’re not just talking about a potential cold which might derail training for a bit, but something that at it's worse can be life threatening, if not for them, then for someone they pass the virus onto.
If there's a risk that hard exercise could reduce immunity, especially coupled with increased stress in other areas (stress about Corona, work, kids at home, different diet, less quality sleep (a lot of people are getting more sleep but not necessarily better quality as late night Netflix and morning lie-ins disrupts sleeping patterns), increased alcohol) etc, then given that no one I know has a race scheduled in the near future, I see it as irresponsible to contribute to that risk.
And so I’ve developed training guidelines that I hope will balance the risk (getting ill and the wider impact that could have) with the reward (benefits in terms of mental health, staying healthy and building fitness towards goals).
My training guidelines:
Always adhere to latest government guidelines
Do the majority of training at Z2 / easy pace (you can breathe through the nose)
Focus on recovery including a good diet and good quality sleep, or the 4 Rs of rest, refuel (glycogen), repair (protein) and rehydrate.
Avoid cycling outside given the impact on medical services of an accident, and the potentially lower care available, given the limited resources. If cycling outside keep it easy (conversational pace, but without the conversation!), stay on well-known routes, carry a full puncture repair kit (and know how to use it!) and basic other tools, do laps close to home (in case you need to walk home), carry your own food and water, and be aware there’s a lot of drivers exceeding speed limits who aren’t expecting to see others out on the road.
Where athletes want something a bit harder or ‘more interesting’ to
not to go over Sweet Spot level intensity for indoors cycle training / Half Marathon Pace running, and to limit time at those intensities and potentially increase recoveries
add in some (6-8) higher intensity microbursts (if desired) of not longer than 15 seconds, followed by extensive recovery (at least a few minutes, so not traditional HIIT). These are unlikely to impact immunity, and are more about building neuromuscular efficiency. Limit to once a week.
keep the majority of sessions close to an hour
The higher intensity/ longer sessions are not included where
Recovery is limited due to higher than normal levels of stress, less sleep, poorer diet
Or the athlete is at higher risk e.g. underlying health issues, tendency to get ill more often, higher risk of exposure (e.g. NHS worker or frequent tube traveller)
And if you think you have Coronavirus then DON’T EXERCISE! – rest to allow your body to fight it without adding in extra stress. And once you feel better, give it a few more days. Many people report feeling better and then much worse, so wait a few days before restarting. A few more days off training are nothing compared with potential risk.
My 'let's make the most of it' guidelines
Take this opportunity to build on skills, form, technique, and building more resilient bodies (rather than focusing on heavy weights, taking some time to do the ‘less exciting’ but essential stability exercises).
Take advantage of working from home to add in regular exercise throughout the day. Can't do more than one press up with good form? Try one every time you get up to make a cup of tea or go to the toilet and see how many you rack up in a day.
Keep a focus on mobility – we’re spending less time moving, and often working from sub optimal desk set ups, but we do have a bit more freedom about what we do at our desks. So make time for mobility work, either 10 mins a day, or ideally a few mins break every hour or so. See my desk based mobility exercises
Seek out the positives (e.g. eating better), don’t feel guilty about it, but do bank the learnings for the future
Protect sleep hygiene by setting regular bed times, establish routines for starting and stopping work, timetable exercise, invest some time in creating a good desk set up.
Focus on doing the sport because you enjoy it rather than working towards a race.
Whilst many coaches are setting strict limits on only programming 60 mins Z2 training a day, I’ve taken a slightly different approach. I believe that if I set that limit, humans being humans (and especially endurance athletes being endurance athletes!), it’s unlikely to be kept to. So I hope by including some slightly more intense/ longer training, but within some set guidelines, my athletes will mostly keep to my plan rather than going off plan too much with their own higher intensity training.
Why I'm not worried about only doing 'easy' training
I have of course had push back from athletes who want something more challenging and who worry Z2 is ‘too easy’ to have benefits.
But almost no-one has a race scheduled in the next few months (and where we do, it’s mostly because 'certain race organisers' are dragging their heels in cancelling races, causing unnecessary stress to athletes in the meantime). Therefore it’s perfectly appropriate and normal to be in a base phase.
And base training is highly effective at building fitness. In a traditional training plan, athletes spend many months in base training, before they move into a higher intensity phase prior to race. This builds the necessary foundations for more intense training, and is sustainable over the long term, whereas higher intensity training, done right, is certainly not.
Doing high intensity training year round may feel 'good' but often actually slows you down because whilst it feels like high intensity, you're too fatigued to reach the higher speeds and everything drifts into the middle ground.
And yes, for some people who were already doing a big volume, cutting the length of sessions down will lead to some reduction in fitness. But this will come back quickly, and surely there's bigger things at stake here?
So when I recommend base training now, it’s not only because I want to reduce the risk to immunity and potentially contracting Coronavirus, but because I’m confident that regular base training is a really effective way to prepare for the season to come. And so long as we have a few months’ notice (don’t get me started on Ironman’s notice period policy!) of rescheduled races to rebuild, to add in the higher intensity or longer distance, then this will actually be a really effective training block. Plus it’s so much nicer to be able to do base training in the sun rather than the usual UK winter!
A great article from Tri Training Harder summarising research related to immunity
A great Zwift Tri podcast with Matt Lieto and Michellie Jones echoing so many of my own thoughts on how to adapt training in the face of Corona (from about 25 mins in)
Runners Connect interview with professional runner Andrew Colley on the importance of building base, not going hard too early in the season (given that the season just got a looooot longer!), recovery as a vital part of training and keeping easy, easy. NB Yes he's doing more strides than I would recommend, he's a professional runner with professional recovery, but you can replicate what he says with the shorter microbursts I'm recommending.
The Real Science of Sport podcast on the potential impact on exercise of going too hard and the relative ease of maintaining fitness on just a few sessions a week (and more in-depth presentations on the same)