A Hard Day in the Saddle is Nothing to Sneeze At

As the 2015 Tour de France comes to a close, this post from March of 2015 increases in relevance. In stage 17 of this year’s edition of the tour, the United States’ best chance for a yellow jersey was dashed when Tejay Van Garderen abandoned the race in the middle of the stage due to a respiratory infection. In an interview after the race, Tejay said, “I finished in fifth pace two times in the Tour de France with a chest infection. It’s just something that happens in a grand tour.” Upper Respiratory Tract Infections are just a way of life in endurance sports. Proper nutrition is the best defense.

Executive Summary

I was recently approached by a professional cyclist who often catches colds after long races or exercise sessions.  This isn’t unusual. Intense bouts of training and competition put significant stress on the body’s immune system. Studies consistently show that after a marathon, 50-70% of runners report symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) and the common cold. It’s even more common for people such as my client who is carrying only about 7% body fat. In a nutshell, after intense activity, the resources your body can apply to recovery are limited. A long, hard run, ride, row, or swim can deplete your immune system.

Furthermore, the practice that leads up to competition and the competition itself is rarely done in solitude. Endurance athletes are surrounded by thousands of people and have many opportunities for contact with disease-causing pathogens.

There is little a competitive athlete can do about any of this. By definition, serious athletes have no choice but to stress their bodies. Plus, there is no way to avoid contact with teammates, support staff or other competitors. There are ways, however, to strengthen, fortify, and better focus the immune system. In summary, these are:

  1. Eat a variety of nutrient dense foods.
  2. Take supplements if you find your diet lacking in immune-supporting nutrients.
  3. Avoid foods that may cause inflammation.
  4. Optimize your nutrition around hard workouts and events.

This post discusses these strategies and the advice I gave to the cyclist.  It’s good advice whether or not it cures his colds.

Eat a Variety of Nutrient Dense Foods

Real, whole foods (as opposed to highly processed and manufactured foods) contain specific vitamins and minerals that support the immune system and help ward off colds. People who eat a broad and balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods probably are getting enough of these nutrients. The table at the end of this post lists the relevant nutrients for preventing colds, the best food sources for them, and comments where applicable. To use this list, review each nutrient and its food sources. If you find you are not eating many of the foods linked to a specific nutrient, find the foods that you would enjoy adding and try to eat more of them. If none of the foods listed are acceptable, you can consider taking supplements but they will never work as well as real food and can have negative side effects (see strategy 2).

If this list seems too difficult to manage, a nutrition coach can work with you to create a specific plan.

Take supplements if you are averse to eating the foods that are listed for that nutrient

Food will always be a better source of nutrition than taking pills or other concentrated forms of a nutrient. Nature does a perfect job of packaging our food in a way that maximizes nutrient preservation and absorption. Furthermore, some nutrients can have negative side effects when taken in excess and people who use supplements are more prone to excessive intake. Finally, over the counter supplements are poorly regulated. you should be careful about the source/supplier of your supplement. The lack of regulation means that the supplement you buy is weaker than advertised or contaminated with undesirable ingredients.

Before choosing the supplement route, you may want to be tested to see if your current levels of the nutrients in question are in line with what they should be for a person of your age, sex, and health. Blood tests can be administered by your physician or directly by a lab. I highly recommend arranging for a professional to help you interpret results. The advantages and disadvantages of going through a doctor vs. a more direct route greatly depend on the situation and are beyond the scope of this post.

One other option is to consider some of the non-essential nutrients that are believed to help reduce cold symptoms. In some studies, for example, extract from the Echinacea plant had this effect but overall the data is inconclusive. Generally there is no harm in taking an Echinacea supplement but keep in mind the previous warning regarding your confidence in the source/supplier.

Avoid foods that may cause inflammation

Inflammation is one of your body’s many immune system responses. Some foods cause inflammation in everybody. Examples include the so-called omega-6 vegetable oils such as safflower or corn oil. When inflammation due to diet is combined with vigorous and elongated exercise, your immune system runs out of gas and is less effective in fighting off colds and UTRIs. Because inflammatory foods are so ingrained in the North American diet, the best way to avoid them is to work with a nutrition coach who can develop a plan that is compatible with your lifestyle and food preferences.

Other foods only cause inflammation in people who are allergic or intolerant. In adults, these intolerances are most often caused by the following:

  • dairy
  • seafood/shellfish
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • eggs

Your physician can generally help diagnose allergies. Intolerances are trickier. If you are interested in pursuing whether you have a food intolerance, consider a food elimination protocol. The following is an example protocol.

  • Before eliminating any of the suspect foods from your diet, note how much of the 5 foods listed above you tend to eat. Do you sense any relationship between your consuming these foods and feelings of discomfort? These feelings may include gassiness, bloating, irregular bowel movements, diarrhea, or a general feeling of blah. Also, note what feels “normal” to you
  • Next eliminate all the foods above from the diet and see if you feel “better” after 3-4 weeks. Eliminating these foods is not easy because dairy, nut by-products, and eggs are hidden in many processed foods. The ingredient label is your friend.
  • If after eliminating everything, you do feel better, you possibly are intolerant. You can identify which food is the cause by slowly introducing the eliminated foods one at a time. Every 3-4 weeks add one of the eliminated foods back into rotation.
  • If after reintroducing a food, you begin feeling any discomfort, you have found a possible source of intolerance. Unfortunately this may not be the only one. Remove the suspect from your diet again and wait another 3-4 weeks before returning another of the listed foods into rotation.
  • Keep cycling through like this with the rest of the foods until either
    • You have identified the culprit(s), in which case you should avoid it/them in the future.
    • All have been returned and you still feel fine. If this happened, congratulations, you either were never intolerant or you recalibrated your system simply by removing the food from your diet for a while

Personally, I think people overreact to food intolerances. Whenever you see a movement around food avoidance that includes special packaging of junk food (Gluten Free Potato Chips!), you are dealing with more of a marketing issue than a true health problem. However, food intolerances are very real for small segments of the population. If you think you might be one of them, you may consider the food elimination protocol.

Optimize your nutrition around events and practice

The typical endurance athlete should eat protein and carbohydrates before, during and after long bouts of practice and competition. Your actual needs are highly specific to your activity schedule, body type, and specialty. Ratios of protein to carbs, form (liquid vs. solid), and timing is very personalized. For the recreational athlete, getting this aspect of nutrition roughly right is good enough.

For those who need to be more serious, your nutrition in and around events or practice is often the difference between losing vs. winning, pain vs. comfort, and health vs. sickness. To get it right, be prepared to make frequent adjustments in cooperation with a nutrition coach.

Cold Fighting Nutrients and Their Sources


Natural Sources


Vitamin A

Red, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables including yams, pumpkin,
squash, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, melons, and dark green leafy
vegetables such as spinach and kale

Vitamin B6

Potatoes, bananas, beans, oats, seeds, spinach, trout, avocado, tuna,
salmon, peanut butter, walnuts, hazelnuts.


Asparagus, lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, sunflower seeds, tuna, peas,
tomatoes, eggplant, brussels sprouts, lentils,
whole grains

Vitamin C

Green leafy vegetables (collard greens, chard, spinach, kale, etc.),
broccoli, parsley, potatoes, peas, citrus fruits, blackcurrants, kiwi, mango,
bell peppers, strawberries, papaya, asparagus, cauliflower

Vitamin D

Egg yolk, salmon, sardines, mackerel, fortified foods like milk

The best source of Vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. Sunlight is
also a known cause of skin cancer. However exposure of the hands and face for
15 minutes a day without the benefit of sunscreen is considered safe.

Vitamin E

Vegetable oil, nuts, green leafy vegetables, avocado, seeds, whole
grains, tomatoes, apples, carrots

Many processed foods contain vegetable oils so most Americans are not
deficient in Vitamin E unless they are eating a very “clean” diet AND
avoiding the other foods listed.


Cashews, crab, sunflower seeds, lentils, hazelnuts, mushrooms,
almonds, chocolate, cocoa powder, nut butters, whole wheat, soybeans, barley,
tempeh, garbanzo beans, organ meats, and navy beans


Red meat, dark colored fish (e.g. tuna) and poultry (e.g. duck), soy,
lentils, spinach, sesame seeds, kidney beans, potatoes, molasses, prunes, cashews,
garbanzo beans, pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, potatoes, prunes, cashews,
garbanzo beans, pumpkin seeds, navy beans

Iron absorption can be improved when the foods listed are eaten in
combination with foods containing Vitamin C.

Iron deficiency in men is uncommon but possible if the foods listed are
generally avoided.


Whole grains, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, green leafy vegetables,
soy beans. Avocados, bananas, apricots, apples, cashews, lima beans,
molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, salmon, halibut, navy beans, black


Brazil nuts, seafood, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat, walnuts, milk,
mushrooms, barley


Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, wild game, crab, poultry, beans,
cashews, garbanzo beans, almonds, peas, yogurt, mushrooms, oysters, shrimp



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