Why Do Elite Athletes Get Sick Before Critical Events?


Why Do Elite Athletes Get Sick Before Critical Events?

When athletes travel long distances, the perception is that the air travel may be responsible. But new research suggests it’s the new environment that may be responsible.

It’s the worst time of an athlete’s career to get sick—just before a critical event for which they’ve trained their hearts … and lungs … and legs … and … you name it … out. Olympic athletes, especially, may be travelling huge distances to take part in the test of a lifetime, only to fall ill just before they compete. Is it the air travel that makes them sick?

Some researchers wanted to find out, particularly after reports in medical literature of incidences of illness and injuries among athletes participating in the Vancouver Olympics as well as world soccer, aquatic, and track events.

Researchers studied travelling rugby players

Their study, which was published in the August 8 online issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, followed the travel time and the daily health among 259 elite rugby players from eight teams who were participating in a 16-week tournament. The players travelled between South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, and time zone differences amounted to between two and 11 hours.

Air travel to blame?

The researchers found that a common perception linking air travel to these types of illnesses among athletes doesn’t seem to be borne out by their research. They said they would expect more cases of respiratory illness after the athletes returned home if the air travel itself—with its associated contact with other passengers and re-circulated air—were responsible.

What they discovered was that the players who travelled more than five time zones from home to compete were more than twice as likely to become ill at their destination compared to when they were competing at home. But they also found that rugby players who travelled back home to play after competing in a distant venue were far less likely to become ill.

It’s the destination—not the travel

According to Martin Schwellnus, the study’s lead author, “The stresses of travelling seem not to affect the players because when they return home the risk of illness does not differ from normal. Changes in air pollution, temperature, allergens, humidity, altitude as well as different food, germs, and culture could all contribute to illness when arriving in a distant destination.”

Taking precautions

Though the researchers cautioned that their study findings don’t necessarily apply to other sports or other types of travellers, it wouldn’t hurt to consider including some immune-boosting help into your training regimen to keep yourself in top form before heading out to the airport for your next long trip—even if it isn’t to participate in the event of a lifetime.


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