Over-Training, Rest, and the Immune Response

Over the last few weeks, my mind has been swinging backward and forwards between my training plans and the Spartan Trifecta Weekend that I’ve signed up for at the end of June. The fear that I won’t be ready by June keeps returning despite my efforts to keep it under control. I tell myself to push harder and longer until my legs are shaking, my stomach is nauseous, and I feel tired all the time.

Part of me asks why my body is so pathetic. The other part of me knows that if I keep going too hard, a burnout is coming for me. I need to drag myself back from the mania that keeps me lingering on the precipice before I fall over the edge. So here we are, back to the topic of over-training

Janda Baik Run

Like a guardian angel watching over me, a friend sent an article to the Jungle Babes group about exercise and immunity. Exercise, like vitamins, is good for our health, but you can OD on it. You know how that saying goes – “too much of a good thing”. The problem with exercise is that it’s like a drug. It feels really good when you’re on it and it’s easy to get addicted to that high. When you can’t exercise, it feels like withdrawal symptoms – well, okay, maybe not that bad but I feel pretty low.

Exercise studies show that regular, modest exercise boosts immunity, and lowers your risk of infection.

…hard, continuous, long-effort exercise like marathons and ultra marathons can lower your resistance for 24 to 72 hours, and lead to increased colds and respiratory illnesses for a week or two. Too much exercise volume and intensity turns the corner on what experts refer to as the J curve—and your risk of infection goes up.

Women’s Running

In a study, David Nieman, Exercise Physiologist, found that running a marathon increased your risk of infections and respiratory illnesses by 6 times post-marathon compared to non-runners. I suppose that’s not surprising. Running a marathon is still extremely taxing no matter how well you’ve trained your body for it. But not only are you worse off than non-runners (albeit for a limited period after the run), you’re like an unhealthy, old person! Yikes!

After a marathon, your immune state is close to that of an older, not particularly healthy individual and those are the ones getting really sick and sometimes even dying.

David Nieman, Exercise physiologist
IJM 13km run

It’s not just the marathon running that diminishes your immune response. It is also the intense training that comes before it. Runners training 100km a week or more had more than double the number of post-marathon infections compared to those who trained under 30km a week.

The article might be talking about marathons and running but I’m pretty sure the same goes for other intense training plans and physically challenging races (think Spartan Beast). I know I’ve had instances where I’ve trained myself into illness because I wouldn’t let up even when my body was crying for rest.

I didn’t learn my lesson until a viral illness took me out for a month. Even though it was a low-grade fever that only hit me in the night, I suffered from terrible neck pains and found it a struggle to get through each day. After dinner, I was ready to collapse from fatigue. Ever since that experience, I back right off the workouts when I am falling ill or still recovering. It is definitely better to be out for a couple of days than a whole month.

Protecting Your Immunity

How can you protect your immune system from taking a beating? Women’s Running covers it in their article, but I like to keep all my information in one place where it is easy for me to find a few months down the track when I need to review what I read. Also, I like to annotate. I’ve added stuff I’ve read elsewhere, I’ve extrapolated, and I’ve combined it with my own experiences.

1. Train Smart

In the case of running, that means doing less than 100km a week, mainly at low intensity (60% of max VO2 which is about 75% of max heart rate), and with most workouts being less than 60 minutes at a time. They also recommend a run-walk approach or even something like 10 minutes hard/10 minutes easy. This is because long, hard runs give your immune system a beating, but intermittent runs are kinder.

I don’t know what this translates to for other workouts, but I’m guessing back-to-back workouts should be kept to a minimum. Perhaps the key here is keeping most of your workouts to no more 60 minutes at a time? Although I am still wondering how much time you need to leave in between workouts. You could argue that a 50-minute workout in the morning and one 40-minute workout in the evening is still adhering to the “less than 60 minutes” rule.

2. Eat Right

Specifically, eat your carbs – before, during (if it’s a long workout), and after. Also, eat blueberries because they help to negate part of the inflammatory response triggered by hard workouts. These are basically stuff like HIIT, heavy strength training, and long-distance running or cycling. Actually, any workout that pushes you beyond what your body is conditioned for counts. Although that said, inflammation after a workout isn’t necessarily bad. Again, we’re back to – a little is good, too much is bad.

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response. It occurs when the body is trying to heal itself from injury or when harmful foreign objects enter (e.g. viruses).

The harder the workout, the bigger the inflammatory response. And if the body is busy responding to the damage caused by exercise, it follows that it will be more likely to succumb to bacteria and viruses we are exposed to.

Digressing… if you don’t like blueberries, other similar foods that are rich in flavonoids (see below) will also help your body cope with the inflammatory response.

3. Take Preventative Measures

Take the usual preventative measures, like wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow, don’t touch your face, and:

  • Get enough recovery time and sleep.
  • Don’t do anything significantly harder than what you’ve been doing.
  • Monitor for early signs of illness and/or overtraining, and adjust accordingly.
  • Avoid crowded gyms and train outdoors.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol intake.
  • Use stress management strategies.

Sleep it off

We know that sleep is important but I think we seriously underestimate the power of sleep.

In his series of exercises on Calm – a meditation app I’ve been using, LeBron James talks about the importance of prioritising sleep. He always makes sure he gets 8 hours of sleep every night and a 2-hour nap during the day. It’s so important to him that he schedules his sleep hours on his planner before he adds anything else. 10 hours of sleep sounds like a lot for a grown man but considering the physical demands he places on his body, I guess it’s really not.

Calm - lebron on sleep

There is a stage we go through as we are falling ill. The medical term for it is “general malaise”. It happens before the real symptoms kick in; we get this feeling of unease or discomfort. I call it that “yuck” feeling when I describe it to my kids. Sometimes, it feels a little like the ache after a tough workout, but there is something distinctively negative about it. The post-workout ache is usually a good ache. The general malaise ache is not.

I’ve noticed that if I catch myself in the phase of general malaise and go to bed early, I can usually prevent the illness, or at least diminish it. When I say sleep early, I mean like getting at least 10 hours of sleep. If I still feel uneasy the next day, I make sure I get a second night with extra sleep or at least a nap during the day. I find that this is the critical stage to increase your sleep hours. If I miss the window, I inevitably fall sick.

Moving Forward

As much as I want to keep hauling my flagging behind into the next workout, I must remember the wise words of my OB when I was in labour with G1 – “There is no point flogging a dying horse”. Worst of all, if I get sick from working out too hard, I will only waste more time.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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