athlete immunity

How to Protect and Boost Athlete’s Immune System

Topics Covered In This Episode:

  • What can I do to boost immune system?
  • Why do I get sick after big races?
  • Innate immunity vs adaptive immunity
  • Basic biology of the human immune system
  • History of the “Open window theory”
  • How to decrease illness risk associated with training
  • Managing sleep to protect your immune function
  • Managing your “touch points” and interactions with other people


Corrine Malcolm has been a CTS Coach for more than 5 years and holds a B.S. in Health and Human Performance. She’s a professional ultrarunner, a top ten Western States finisher, and a former U.S. Biathlon National Team member.


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Episode Transcription:

Please note that this is an automated transcription and may contain errors. Please refer to the episode audio for clarification.

Corrine Malcolm (00:00):

I’m coach Corrine Malcolm. And I’m back again this week to answer one of your personal questions, kids are back in school and you know what that means. They’re bringing home every cough, cold and bug. They pick up for my athletes with kids. Fall can be this real test of everyone’s immune systems. And that’s exactly what I wanna dive into today. I frequently get asked things like what can I do to boost my immune system? Or why do I seem to get sick after every big event while there are definitely some immune system myths out there, I wanna dive a little bit into immune system basics. What should you be thinking about this time of year? How does your immune system work and what impact does exercise have on your immune system’s ability to do its job? Things that are really important for us to consider as athletes heading into fall and winter months?

Corrine Malcolm (00:48):

So our bodies are both really simple and really complex, which, you know, everything gets to work together in this really impossibly clever way. It’s what fascinated me about the human body and about physiology and why I studied it. That interaction between simplicity and incredibly complex systems and your immune system is part of that cleverness its job is to protect you from all the outside intruders we encounter. We call these things antigens, and these are anything from toxins to anything that our body identifies as a foreign substance. And then there’s pathogens, which are basically bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms that can cause disease. So that’s our immune system’s job to protect us from antigen. So anything foreign and then pathogens specifically, which are bacteria, viruses and microorganisms that specifically cause disease. And it’s important to know that your immune system is broken into two main types of responses.

Corrine Malcolm (01:46):

You’ve got innate immunity, which is also known as nonspecific immunity. And then you have adaptive immunity, which is known as specific immunity. And we’re gonna talk about both of those things and how they work. So first you’ve got your innate I immune system. Again, that’s nonspecific immunity and it’s called non-specific immunity because it produces the exact same response. No matter the type of intruder it’s innate, you’re born with it. Our innate immune system is also, it makes up what we call our first and second lines of defense and these things, once again, things we’re born with, they’re gonna include things like your skin, sweat, stomach acid, tears, the mucus linings of all of your internal organs and your mouth and your throat as well as saliva. So these things act as first and second lines of defense. Those, those listed, again, skin, sweat, stomach acid, tears, mucosal, lining, saliva.

Corrine Malcolm (02:44):

Those are first lines. And then second lines of defense are generally a little bit more chemical. They involve white blood cells. So specifically neutrophils and macrophages. And these are both we call them FGO sites and they literally work by engulfing and then ingesting and digesting anything our body identifies as not belonging to us. And this process isn’t known as FGO cytosis. So we’ve got first line skin, sweat tears again, and then we’ve got second line of defense, which are a type of white blood cell that literally eats up the bad things. And those things, once again are both part of your innate immune system. I E you’re born with them. They have the exact same response, every single time independent of what the intruder is. And so in my mind, that’s the simple part of the immune system. It, it, we know exactly how it works.

Corrine Malcolm (03:36):

It’s pretty, pretty straightforward. The more complex side of it again is gonna be that adaptive immune system. And it’s adaptive because it is complex in that it I won’t use the right words here. It is reactive and it learns, and it has memory and it responds differently to different types of in intruders. And so this is also gonna make up, what’s known as our third line of defense and essentially it’s a more complex chemical signaling response and it learns to identify different antigens. This means it’s got a more targeted response and just like your second line of defense, it utilizes white blood cells, but this time it utilizes blood cells known as lymphocytes. And they’re basically as we’re naturally exposed to antigens over the course of our lifetime, including things like vaccines, our lymphocytes have memory and they learn to respond accordingly, which is really, really cool.

Corrine Malcolm (04:32):

And so I think that kind of ends our, what I’ll call our biology section of the class. I don’t know if you can tell, but I teach ninth grade biology. And so we’re gonna tie this now what we know about the immune system, our first, second and third lines of defense, our innate and our adaptive immune system into exercise into the things that we like to do and why you’re here. So over time, the literature has kind of been all over the place on this topic when it comes to exercise and the immune system. But what we do know is that daily moderate exercise. So again, kind of easy aerobic exercise up to about 60 minutes in length provides an overall boost that I’m gonna use air quotes here, boost to your immune system function. And why I say boost it’s because it’s not really making your immune system better, but it does increase your resistance to mild infections in the common cold or in common cold rather.

Corrine Malcolm (05:23):

And this is more or less due to increased blood circulation. So you have more of these things like lymphocytes circulating, circulating around your body due to due to that increased blood flow that movement provides. So again, yes, in a way, exercise does boost your immune system, but it does. So by using your physiology. And then the question from there becomes well is more, always better, right? If a little bit of exercise boosts my immune system, what about more exercise and more exercise? And that gets into that kind of nuanced gray area of stress and overall stress in the body and how you’re specifically responding to that stress. And for the longest time, you know, we believe that why people got sick post races, for example, like, oh, you go to your big championship, race, your big, a race of the season. The next week you have a cold, well, why is that happening?

Corrine Malcolm (06:16):

And for the long time we believed in this thing called the open window theory, and it’s this idea that intensive exercise. So either long and or hard exercise or both ultra running is a little bit of both. You create this period of time and they believed it was three hours to 72 hours, this open window in which you had increased susceptibility to illness. And we thought this for a long time. And we actually, it was kind of supported in the literature as well, because when we did kind of blood tests after these intensive exercises, we saw a dramatic fall off in circulating lymphocytes. Again, those white blood cells, that third line of defense that we need to, you know, find specific antigens and take care of them. So we saw this fall off post post intensive exercise, and we thought, oh my goodness, this is rapid cell death.

Corrine Malcolm (07:07):

This is really, really bad for you. This is bad for our immune system. Our immune system must be impaired, hence open window theory. And this idea that you were more susceptible during this time. Well, it turns out that those lymphocytes were not actually dying. They weren’t disappearing. They were actually being shifted and shifted more to peripheral locations within your body. And they were doing this. It’s really clever. Once again, the immune system is super clever. It was doing this because it was shifting white blood cells, specifically lymphocytes to, to areas of your body where they were more likely to encounter antigens like your lungs or your gut. So instead it was more of a redeployment of white blood cells, not cell death, not cells disappearing. And it’s actually a really good thing. Essentially. It’s like an enhanced surveillance system that goes into overdrive in a way post hard, intense, and or long exercise.

Corrine Malcolm (08:02):

So the open window theory more or less was debunked, but, you know, if it doesn’t really hold water, you know, can you do whatever you want? Are you still at high risk of being sick? You know, what’s going on there. And so we do know that athletes do tend to get sick around and after major events, but if it’s not tied to the open window theory, what, you know, kind of what’s going on is that next question. And it turns out that there’s definitely more than one factor at play. I E more stress than just the stress from one big race effort. There’s other things going on. Other factors can include life, stress, decreased, sleep, quantity, and quality. We’ve talked about that. We talked about that last episode a little bit. We’ll dive. We can dive more into sleep, but that’s a topic of interest for you all. Travel. We just talked about air travel. We know that there’s lots of surfaces and things that can go wrong during long haul

Corrine Malcolm (08:55):

Air travel for athletes, and then you’ve got nutritional deficits. So all those things kind of combined with one another or you know, we call those confounding variables cause we’re not sure which one might be the culprit. You know, it’s kind of hard to pick there from the, from the lottery. One might say of things that could go wrong. The likelihood is that at least one of those things are present in and around a big race effort. And any one of those things could in a way impair your immune system or at least set you not set you up for success. Okay. So open window theory, basically debunked, but there are lots of things that we can point out in which you might be putting yourself at risk figuring something out. So what can you do to decrease your risk of illness? And I just wanna reiterate here that EXOS in general is good for your immune system.

Corrine Malcolm (09:45):

But you’ve gotta make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Right? Good sleep, good nutrition. And we’re gonna talk about the next thing. Good hygiene. We mentioned this last week. Hygiene is really, really important. And if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us about hygiene. And so you wanna avoid close contact with individuals who have been recently sick or who are currently sick. You wanna wash your hands frequently and you wanna avoid touching your face. Yes. Your nos, your mouth, your eyeballs wash your hands before you put your fingers in any of those locations before and after you eat, et cetera. And some of those hygiene habits go out the window when we’re traveling, when we’re not in our normal environments, when we’re not in our home kitchens. So something to keep in mind when it comes to avoiding illness in and around big injury.

Corrine Malcolm (10:29):

Again, like we talked about last week, adequate sleep is super protective. And once again, in and around big races, we don’t get adequate sleep. I E my 200 mile athletes out there. You’re not getting adequate sleep when you run a 200 and that’s okay, but that does put you at more risk for kind of a depressed immune system afterwards, and an increased inflammatory response. And it’s kind of those things generally in tandem with one another that are making you more likely making you more susceptible for illness during that time. So again, we wanna aim for seven to nine hours sleep a night because we do know that sleep disturbances can both depress your immune system and increase inflammation. Okay? So keep that in mind when control the controllables during a 200 mile radi, you’re not gonna go to sleep a lot, but during travel pre-travel post travel focus on good hygiene, focus on good sleep.

Corrine Malcolm (11:18):

You gotta manage your touchpoints. Okay. I came to hygiene. You gotta consider who and how you interact with others. I see this in and around running events all the time. I was just in shaman and several pros, several favorites in the races got COVID during race week. And I also saw, saw them out doing public autograph sessions, doing indoor talks unasked. And while, you know, we’re moving out of a pandemic, there are other illnesses that can get in your way of, of finishing a goal race. I myself got neurovirus for, for UT M B in 2019, not a fun way to race. U T M B. So take good care of yourself. Consider things like fist bumps over high fives. You get the picture hygiene, manage your touch, touch points again. The next thing you can do is monitor your exercise workload when you can.

Corrine Malcolm (12:05):

I kind of think of this as a stress buckets, IE, your body doesn’t understand the difference between work stress, life, stress training stress, and when the stress balance gets outta whack you can ultimately impair your immune system, high cortisol response, those kind of things. Aren’t gonna be super helpful for you. That’s also why we see an actually an increased increased rate, increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections in overreached athletes. So athletes that have kind of pushed training a little too far without adequate recovery, higher risk for upper respiratory tract infections, which makes sense. It’s kind of your second line of defense or your first line of defense falling, falling apart on you, maybe your mucus linings there. So keep in mind that, you know, you gotta balance stress where you can, so you gotta manage other stressors in your life. Watch out for the overflowing stress bucket, watch out for the life, stress, the work stress, the training stress in and around big races.

Corrine Malcolm (13:01):

And then the last thing to consider is fueling strategies. During exercise, you gotta avoid major nutrition, deficiencies, and caloric restriction. We know we actually, we know this that ingesting carbohydrates during prolonged or intense activity can actually reduce stress, hormones and inflammation, and that restrictive diet’s coupled with endurance training. It’s kind of what we all do here is a recipe for relative energy deficiency. And that’s gonna set you up on a path of kind of body implosion and definitely your immune system is gonna take a hit in that. So essentially you have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of your body. You have to take care of you. So again, manage your touchpoints, really good hygiene, you know, keep protecting your sleep, monitor that stress load, monitor that workload and fuel yourself adequately and all those things stacked up should help you avoid both the in training block illnesses and the the in and around race illnesses.

Corrine Malcolm (13:59):

I can’t keep your kids from getting sick at school, but you know, even pro practicing proper hygiene in the house when kids come home with bugs is a step in the right direction. So good luck to all the parents out there with kids going back to school, good luck with everyone training for their final fall, a race of the year. I hope this is helpful. I hope this was informative. Let me know if you liked this style, a podcast, send me an email, reach out with follow up questions. If there’s something that kind of perked your interest here, piqued your interest here, or pose a new question for us to tackle next time until then I hope you can continue to train right.



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