Last year, as my son started training more intensively in preparation for competition, I noticed to my surprise that he actually was more sick than he was in years prior. I started researching and asking questions.
I and the rest of humankind know from our childhood that exercise is a great thing for people’s health, especially for children, as they become stronger and more resistant to different sorts of sickness. This is backed up by loads of research as well. So it did not make sense to me that my son got colds last year more often than before. Something must be wrong, I thought.
What I read suprised me the most was that there are some conditions in which athletes are more prone to sickness than are non-athletes. Surprising, isn’t it? Well for me – I was just stunned to find out that in fact there is a window in which the athlete actually opens themselves up to upper respiratory illnesses as a result of intense physical training!
From one side, rigorous exercise is important for your child in order for them to grow up healthy and strong, and it will actually help them to live longer and with fewer illnesses. From another side, under specific conditions elite athletes are more prone to some sort of infection than us mortals. So what’s going on?
The Open Window
What really happens is that after a strenuous bout of exercise, there is an open window of decreased immunity that lasts for 4-12 hours, though potentially as long as 24 hours, and puts an individual at risk for illness. During that time the suppressed immune system is more prone to upper respiratory infections.
That was quite interesting, I thought about this and immediately tried to analyze whether my son actually might be in the open window position.
The truth is – I have no idea whether this is a reason indeed, and I have no means to either prove or decline this assumption. Also, my son by no means is an elite athlete at his young age, though long strenuous exercise must be adjusted per age. What looked relevant to me is that his sicknesses were in some sort of conjunction to the periods of more active training. So maybe it is coincidence, who knows, but at least now I am armed with knowledge.
What was comforting in all this research was that this is not something that happens every time you exercise, but only seems to happen during intense physical training. It’s also more likely to happen when the level of exercise is significantly increased – so when you go from the normal routine to much higher level, for example during intensive pre-competition training, camps or clinics, or extremely long two-event competition days.
This seems like a lot of bad news – IT’S NOT. And the reason is that once you know what to expect, preventing this will be relatively easy. What this really means is that we as parents need to be very vigilant about keeping our children from getting exposed to viruses when they don’t need to be. You’ve been through cold and flu season with your child for their whole lives, so you know how to take cautionary steps such as washing hands, eating right, staying away from sick people, not sharing drinks, etc. – we don’t need to tell you these things. Parents are experts at applying their common sense to help their children stay healthy.
After I read all of this research (which by the way always concludes that the long term benefits of training are much more important than this short term loss of immunity/increased inflammation, plus they provide the same common sense preventive actions), there are 3 additional things that I, as a fencing mom, adapt to combat these issues:
1. Right eating after training.
This is a struggle point for many families (mine included!). Lots of kids can be extremely picky when it comes to food. A great source of information is our past post on “Eating on Fencing Competition Day”, which offers you some solid guidance. Expand what you find there about the do’s and don’ts of competition day eating to eating during intensive training and you’ll be in great shape. Another point: when somebody says to me the words “immune system”, I immediately think of Vitamin-C, from fruits and vegetables, of course. Boosting vitamin C doesn’t just mean drinking more orange juice! here are a wide variety of beautifully colored fruits and vegetables that include this essential, immune building nutrient – just check out these examples!
With our busy schedules and given the high need for sleep in the developing brains of kids, the proper amount of good sleep is essential. Here sometimes we find that we must sacrifice something. But it is clear – more kids sleeps, better their mood and health (as well as the mood and health of adults!)
And last (fencing specific) tip is in regards to travel. Airplanes are the perfect place for viruses and infections to incubate! Since there is this open window after strenuous training, I’ve decided NOT TO fly within 12-24 hours of working out in this kind of intense way (that goes for my kids not doing super intensive training within 12-24 hours of a flight as well). Moreover, if it’s possible, it’s never a bad idea not to travel on the same day as the last event of a far away competitions, such as SYC’s and NAC’s.