For endurance athletes, staying healthy while training represents more money in the fitness bank. Imagine that for every day you were sick, you had to dig into your savings and pay your employer two and a half days of income:

  • Five days off would cost you 13 days’ income;
  • Seven days off would cost you 18 days’ income;
  • Two weeks off would cost you 35 days’ income.

If sick days cost you money, would that change how you interact with people? How much more cautious would you be about getting sick?

“Also known as germophobia, mysophobia is a pathological fear of contamination and germs.”  —Wikipedia

Suddenly, what is normally an irrational fear becomes very, very rational. This is the harsh reality for endurance athletes.

“Whenever the athlete stops training, a 'detraining' process sets in, inducing a relatively rapid loss of the acquired adaptation. For example, half the increase in mitochondria from 5 weeks of training may be lost in 1 week of detraining. Since the number of mitochondria substantially determines the endurance capacity of the [athlete], it is obvious that the loss of one week of training will have a marked effect on the endurance.”

So for every unplanned rest day, you lose two and a half days of mitochondria. That sucks.

The Best Defense

I spent the first four years of my skimo training in an up-and-down battle with illness. I’d build up two or three months of training and start feeling really fit. Then I’d get sick and spend two or three weeks on the couch, losing up to two months of training. Once recovered, I’d have to start the slow, tedious climb back up.

In January 2018, I resolved to be smarter about avoiding illness. If my friends and family thought I was crazy, so be it. I was sick and tired of watching months of hard work go down the drain. I decided that I would approach illness like a crazy person. 

The solution was what I call “functional mysophobia“: an intentional avoidance of illness that is on par with someone irrationally afraid of germs. I would become a mysophobe.

And it worked. I didn’t have an unplanned rest day for 425 days. It was working so well that I was getting superstitious. I didn’t want to write or talk about it in case I jinxed it. But now that I have a runny nose and a cough, I can tell you about it.

Managing Risk: Strategies for Staying Healthy while Training

There are four keys to managing risk: probability, consequence, exposure, and vulnerability.

When thinking about risk, most people never get past probability, and they make a lot of bad decisions because of it. When you look at all four factors, it becomes a powerful defensive tool:

  • Probability: What’s the chance that I’ll get sick (given my life and lifestyle)?
  • Consequence: What happens if I get sick? What will I lose?
  • Exposure: How can I decrease the presence of the threat?
  • Vulnerability: How can I increase my resistance to the threat?

Your own probability of infection and its consequences are individual and easy to figure out. With school-age kids and intermittent life stress, I was dealing with a probability of “near certainty” and a consequence of “big-time suckage.”

Here are the tools that I used to manage exposure (the things outside of me) and vulnerability (the things inside me).

Image by Scott Semple.

Ben Firth approaching Surprise Pass near Lake Louise, Alberta.

Decreasing Your Exposure to Germs

You want to avoid any controllable circumstances where there may be an increase in the number of germs in your immediate environment.

Decreasing exposure comes down to two key areas:

  • Being wary of airflow; and
  • Avoiding communal control surfaces.

Being Wary of Airflow

They say a single cough can expel 3,000 infected droplets at 50 miles per hour (mph). A sneeze? 40,000 droplets at 200 mph.

“...smaller and lighter particles are less affected by gravity and can stay airborne almost indefinitely as they are caught up in and dispersed by the room's airflow.”

So think of air as water, and position yourself accordingly.

Stay upwind from people.

Staying upwind will carry your germs to them, but not the reverse.

Mind the wake.

When passing someone in a hallway or on a hiking trail, if they show any sign of illness, inhale just before you pass them, and exhale as late as possible.

Avoid unhealthy people (and their plumes of illness).

The less you’re around sick people, the lower the chance of inhaling their illness. In general, that means obvious sick people, kids (especially in groups), childcare workers, the elderly, and sedentary people. Probably the safest place to be is training outside; unhealthy people don’t exercise and obsessive exercisers usually prefer booty classes.

Avoid enclosures.

Enclosures can be a double whammy because you could end up in someone else’s germ cloud and sitting right beside them. Things like cars and gondolas are especially dicey. On a gondola, in particular, try and get your own car, and open the windows to air it out from the previous party.

Being Wary of Communal Control Surfaces

Guess where the germs are? Be a lefty.

A communal control surface is anything that multiple people use to control something else. This includes things like light switches, remote controls (especially in hotels), door handles, steering wheels, grocery carts, gas pumps, etc.

(Once you’re a functional mysophobe, you’ll be amazed to see how everyone uses these things without any thought as to who used them before…)

In general, try not to use these surfaces. But if you must, wipe them down or use some type of barrier to manipulate them.

Use your elbows as much as possible.

Try this: Wipe your eye with your elbow. Can’t do it, right? Whenever possible, use your elbow to flick things like light switches. It’s impossible for your elbow to get near your eyes and nose, so it’s a great biomechanical barrier.

When elbows won’t work, use a knuckle.

Knuckles are especially useful for PIN pads. Can you imagine how many fingers use those things every day?

When an elbow or knuckle won’t work, use a barrier.

A barrier could be a tissue, the end of your sleeve on your dominant hand, or the hem of your shirt.

Even with elbows, knuckles, and barriers, always contact the surface using the most unergonomic area.

Good news: 99.9 percent of people are going to touch a control surface without even thinking about it. That means that they’ll all grab the same convenient spot. That’s a win because you and the other crazies can use the most uncomfortable part and reduce your exposure even more.

  • For door handles, reach lower or wider than most, or if possible, don’t use the handle at all.
  • If no door handle, use your lower arm or hip to push the door.
  • At a magazine rack, pick a copy from deep in the stack, never the top copy.
  • Take the stairs. Unhealthy people prefer elevators.
Travel with your own pen.

You never leave home without your keys, phone, and wallet, right? Add a pen to your list of key tools.

Always carry hand sanitizer.

Ditto for hand sanitizer. Keys, wallet, phone, pen, hand sanitizer. An added bonus is that you can offer it to people, protecting them and you at the same time.

If sanitizer is provided, use it.

This is especially helpful at grocery stores. Grab the wipes and wipe down the cart handle.

Never ever touch your eyes or nose directly.

Runny nose? Sniff until you can find a tissue. Goopy eye? Use the inside of your collar. Never use your bare hand. Another possible—but dicey—option is the sleeve of your nondominant hand. (Remember, your dominant sleeve is for control surfaces.)

Be left handed.

Most people are right-handed and will grab the right-favored control surface. When there’s a left-hand option, use it.

Most importantly, wash your hands obsessively.

Build a new habit of incessant handwashing after anything that may have contaminated them: door handles, tissue, sneezes, etc.

Image by Scott Semple.

Ben Firth approaching Surprise Pass near Lake Louise, Alberta.

Reducing Your Vulnerability

The only time you should give it your all is on race day. Otherwise, hedge your bets. Never bet your whole roll. Always have some energy in reserve that your body can use to fight off illness.

There are two parts to reducing vulnerability: staying healthy and playing defense.

Staying Healthy

Sleep as much as possible.

The less you sleep, the more likely you are to catch a cold. This year I made sleep a big priority, and I think it’s one of the biggest contributors to my improvement. I try to sleep at least 8 hours per night, and 20 minutes per afternoon. I prioritize sleep above everything else.

If you have a crappy sleep, change your training plan.

One crappy night usually doesn’t make a difference. But if I have consecutive bad nights of sleep, I back off on my training and have easy days until my sleep is restored.

Eat a healthy diet.

Make sure your diet is giving you the nutrients you need to support your training load and defend you against illness. If necessary, take legitimate supplements. (I’m not a nutritionist, but I’ve read that probiotics, vitamin D, and zinc all support the immune system.)

Fuel for the work required.

Make sure that your calorie intake is sufficient to support your training load. It’s important to watch your weight, especially for uphill athletes, but combining heavy training loads with calorie restriction is a recipe for disaster.

Train less than you’re capable of.

It took my thick skull a long time to clue into this: Your training will never go according to plan. You’re going to get curveballs. You need some slack in the system to deal with the unforeseen. Save the “see God” moments for when you need them: in races or pushing for the summit. You rarely need them in training.

Avoid stress.

Stress is nasty. Just as you never want to train to the limit, you never want to think or feel to it either. Always have something in reserve to deal with the unexpected.

Avoid alcohol.

Alcohol can weaken the immune system for hours and days after ingestion. And it negatively impacts sleep. The relatively brief gratification of drinking doesn’t outweigh the increase in risk.

Talk to Our Registered Dietitian

purchase a phone consultation with Alyssa Leib, MS, RD.

Playing Defense

No matter how diligent you are, you may still catch something. At the first sign of symptoms, either in yourself or those you live with, you need to change your game. You need to switch from building fitness to protecting fitness.

Sleep, eat, repeat.

If you have any symptoms, you can be sure that your body is fighting something. Sleeping and eating will support your defenses.

Train less.

Adjust your training plan. Back off and go into maintenance mode until the threat has passed. Keep that money in the bank. It’s much easier to make up for lost training from an unplanned taper than it is from an unplanned illness.

Avoid intensity.

Postpone any intensity sessions until you’re fully recovered. Adding intensity onto a struggling immune system will only make things worse.

Avoid fasted sessions.

Glycogen depletion is an important tool in aerobic development, but it also compromises immunity. Avoid depleted training alongside any symptoms that you or a family member develop.

Mind the trend.

As you sleep more, eat more, and train less, do your symptoms improve? If so, continue cautiously. If not, back off even more.

Welcome to La-La Land

Yep, now you cray-cray.

I started this crazy exercise last January (of 2018). After 425 days of uninterrupted training, I’m fitter and faster than I’ve ever been. I’ve trained at record volumes and intensities. My race results this year are my best ever.

And acting like a crazy person for a year was a key component. I highly recommend it.

Your friends and family are sure to notice your craziness. If they voice any concerns about your newfound mysophobia, just ask them:

“If you had to pay me $300 for every day that I got sick, would you still think I’m crazy?”

This article was originally published by Scott Semple.

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