What Athletes Need to Do to Avoid Getting Sick


As a coach, one of the most stressful parts of a major competition is keeping the athletes healthy on the way to the venue. Ironically, when athletes push themselves to the point where they’re in peak competitive fitness, they’re also teetering on the edge of coming down with an illness. It doesn’t take much for them to get a cold or a stomach bug that could completely ruin their chances for an Olympic medal or a World Championship. In many cases, the average traveler may actually have a stronger immune system than an elite athlete, but you can use the same protocols we use with elite athletes to avoid spending your vacation in bed with a cold.

Prevention is all about getting a flu shot  and controlling what comes into contact with your eyes, nose, and mouth. I’m not saying you have to become a crazy person about it, but some basic steps can dramatically reduce your chances of becoming ill on the way to a fun or important destination.

Keep to yourself: It’s hard to do during the busy travel season, but do what you can to minimize your time in the most crowded areas of the terminals and waiting areas. Close quarters and communal property (handrails, etc.) make transferring germs much easier. Use your elbow or the back of your hand to push doors open. If you’re wearing light winter gloves keep them on as you enter buildings and use public transportation. Keep the germs on the outside so you have clean(er) hands inside to eat with!

Wash Frequently: Besides air, nothing contacts your mouth, nose, and eyes more frequently than your hands. Be mindful to minimize this contact as much as you can, wash with soap and water before eating anything, and use hand sanitizer (minimum 60% alcohol) when soap and water aren’t available. You don’t have to be obsessive; dirty hands aren’t a problem until you need to use them in contact with your face or food.

Eat safe: The chances of getting food-borne illnesses in a developed country are actually very low, but I don’t take chances with elite athletes and it’s OK to be conservative as you head off on a highly-anticipated vacation or to a business meeting. Bottled beverages and peelable fruits and vegetables are good choices, as are packaged foods that are designed to be stored and consumed at room temperature.

Support your immune system: Get a good night’s sleep before a travel day, stay hydrated, and try to minimize stress. The stronger your immune system, the more exposure to germs you can tolerate before something actually makes you ill. There is even some new evidence that the cold virus thrives when your nose is cold, so maybe that scarf your Mom used to bug you about was really a good idea!

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Staying healthy factors into everything an elite athlete does. They carry their own pen to sign autographs because they know where it’s been. And the fist-bump? It’s not just cool; it ensures that any transferred germs stay on the back of the hand. Some even travel with their own flatware or a stash of sealed, disposable flatware like the ones you get from take-out restaurants. Seem extreme? The Ironman World Championship or the Super Bowl only happen once a year and the same may be true of your vacation.

Chris Carmichael
Founder and CTS Chief Endurance Officer

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Comments 11

  1. I wish I would have had this information yesterday, I could have used it as I was trying to convince a client they needed to protect their immune system.

    10 to 30 degrees out and all they’re wearing is a light jacket!!!

  2. Or…one could take the contrarian position and look to build immunity. Don’t worry about touching things or being around people who aren’t obviously sick, don’t over-wash, no flu shots. Sometimes it seems that playing it safe makes getting sick worse when it does happen. However, do keep warm, get plenty of rest and generally maintain a healthy lifestyle and do watch the food while travelling (you can’t build immunity to food borne illness.)

    1. No flu shots? Now, that’s a bad advice. We are exposed to countless germs already. What is the scientific evidence that shows that not getting flu shots boost the immunity? As a matter of fact, getting a flu shots boots immunity (at least against the flu vriuses it is trying to protect against) since it is how it works.

      1. I agree. I say exercise your immune system on a daily basis. This means don’t be crazy about washing hands, eating food dropped on the floor etc. Create the mental image of having a strong immune system (this lowers fear based stress). At the same time immunizations like flu shots and pneumonia shots are a good thing…more exercise targeted to microbes known to cause illness. The common sense recommendations in this article make sense to me in the context of dis-ease prevention in the context of stressful activity (travel and high stakes competition). Just my humble opinion.

      2. The next time you get your flu shot, ask for the insert. Read and see just how effective it is. Also it contains thimerosal, which is Mercury.

        1. Post

          While I agree with you on the variability of effectiveness for the flu vaccine (it might work, it might not), there’s a big difference between ethylmecury (the kind in used as a preservative in the flu vaccine) and methylmercury (the kind you would find in the body after ingesting mercury metal). If you want to avoid methylmercury – which is definitely toxic – you’d be better off not eating large predators (tuna, for instance) than not using vaccines. If you don’t want to take a flu shot, that’s up to you, but a fear of mercury toxicity shouldn’t be the basis for that decision.

    2. Bad Advice! As a medical professional/athlete who’s looked into this stuff (as I HATE being sick), you can’t build up your immunity to these viruses. You get a sizeable exposure to the virus you get sick every time. Colds, flu, gastroenteritis it’s all viruses. As I tell my kids, wash your hands wash your hands wash your hands. If more people did we wouldn’t spread so much of these viruses around!

  3. One last bit of advice: Clinical studies also suggest that “cold” viruses can enter through your eye ducts. Since reading this some years back, I have been much more mindful about rubbing my eyes, and only touch my eye area after I’ve washed my hands. I get far fewer “colds” now than I used to!!

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