Practical strategies to help you maintain a strong immune system & help improve your chances of staying illness-free & consistent with your training.

Importance of a Strong Immune System

Most cyclists are only afraid of two things – injury and illness (and if you’re like me, the odd sheer cliff edge).

Unfortunately, at this time of year, we are hearing more frequently from our cyclists that they have had to put their training on hold due to the latter, a respiratory tract infection or virus.

But it’s not only the weather at this time of year that increases your chances of coming down with something. While regular exercise is generally beneficial for immune function, extreme endurance exercise, such as long cycling sessions, can lead to immune suppression. Couple this with the demands of a busy schedule already and it can really take its toll on your body, making cyclists even more susceptible to illnesses.

As cyclists striving to balance training, work, and personal commitments, prioritising your immune health should be non-negotiable.

Below we will cover some of our practical strategies to help you maintain a strong immune system and help improve your chances of staying illness-free and consistent with your training.  


What is the Immune System?

Before we delve into strategies to help you maintain a strong immune system, it's essential to understand the basics of the immune system.

The immune system is the body's defence network against infections and diseases. It consists of a complex system of cells, tissues, and organs working together to recognise and eliminate various pathogens, providing the crucial defence barrier for maintaining overall health.

So, how can you influence this system positively? 

1. Sleep/Rest

We recommend always following a balanced approach to your training by ensuring you incorporate sufficient rest days into your schedule. Rest days allow the immune system to recover and strengthen, reducing the risk of infections. 

Getting at least 7-8 hours of rest a night is essential. However, it's not only the length of sleep but also the quality that is important and determined by how much time you spend in deep sleep (Stage 3). Ideally, you would spend 15-25% of your sleep in a deep sleep. This stage of the sleep cycle helps to boost immune function and aids in controlling stress and anxiety. During sleep, the body undergoes a full repair and regeneration process which is crucial for immune function.

TOP TIP: To maximise your sleep quality try creating a conducive sleep environment, and limiting screen time before bedtime. More importantly, establish a consistent sleep routine, ie. go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day as this helps regulate your body's internal clock, known as your circadian rhythm. This consistency will improve your overall sleep quality. Using a Whoop or Garmin/Apple watch will also help you track and evaluate your sleep quality and patterns.  

Image shows the 4 stages of sleep


The image shows an example of a sleep cycle through the night


2. Nutrition

Diet, as we all know, plays a vital role in supporting a healthy immune system. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains provides the necessary nutrition to support strong immune function. To guarantee a diverse range of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, aim for a rainbow of colour on your plate choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables, adding leafy greens such as kale, spinach and swiss chard regularly. Make sure you eat a range of lean meats, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds as this provides a mix of essential amino acids.

TOP TIP: Where possible, use seasonal and local produce, as these foods can provide freshness, variety, and potentially a higher nutrient content. Opt for organic produce where possible, especially with foods without a hard outer skin which means they are usually more prone to pesticides and other harmful toxins. 

3. Hydration

Dehydration can compromise the immune system, so it’s not only important on the bike but also during the rest of your day to stay hydrated. Carry a water bottle and sip on it throughout the day to maintain optimal hydration levels. This supports the transportation of immune cells and antibodies through the bloodstream helping to keep you healthy.

TOP TIP: Always start the day with a big glass of filtered, still water before you have your coffee or tea to break your 8 hours of fasting. 

4. Supplementation For Cyclists

For cyclists with busy schedules, getting all the necessary nutrients from food alone may be challenging especially when travelling. In such cases, supplementation can play an essential role. We highly recommend considering adding the following:

Vitamin D, especially during the winter, is super important. Despite spending extended periods outdoors, here in the UK, you will not get enough vitamin D, which is necessary to support immune function and overall health. Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, contributing to bone health and overall immune regulation and is also involved in the activation of immune cells, essential for the body's defence against infections.

Zinc is essential for immune cell development and function, DNA synthesis, and wound healing. So adding a zinc supplement into your daily routine, especially during periods of intense training when you may potentially lose more through sweat, is a must.

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin with powerful antioxidant properties. It supports the synthesis of collagen, aids in wound healing, and plays a vital role in immune function. Intensive cycling generates oxidative stress, leading to the production of free radicals that can damage cells and tissues. Vitamin C acts as a potent antioxidant, neutralising free radicals and reducing oxidative stress. By doing so, it supports the immune system and helps prevent illnesses.

Echinacea is an herbal supplement derived from the flowers of the Echinacea plant. It has been traditionally used to support immune function and alleviate symptoms of the common cold. Echinacea contains compounds that help stimulate the activity of immune cells. For cyclists aiming to maintain optimal health during training and events, taking echinacea can help, especially when you feel the first effects of a cold coming on. 

Before starting any of the above, we always recommend consulting with a healthcare professional to help you determine personalised supplement dosages, due to everyone’s unique physiology and environment. 

5. Stress Management

Chronic stress triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which, over time, can suppress immune function, making you more susceptible to illnesses. If you are engaged in an intense training regimen, finding effective stress management techniques is essential to alleviate the potential negative impact on your immune system.

TOP TIP: Incorporating practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga into your weekly routine can greatly help modify this stress response. These techniques not only promote relaxation but also have been shown to reduce cortisol levels and enhance overall psychological well-being. Try out one of our restorative yoga sessions from the Njinga Cycling Academy or check out our favourite meditation we use regularly.


Image shows Gut Microbiome - Microorganisms living inside your gut make up your gut microbiome.

6. The Importance of the Gut Biome

Optimising your gut microbiome is another integral aspect of boosting your immunity. The gut houses trillions of microorganisms collectively known as the microbiome, playing a pivotal role in immune function, influencing your body's ability to ward off infections, absorb nutrients and maintain overall health. A healthy gut microbiome helps in the production of short-chain fatty acids, which contribute to immune cell function and reduce inflammation.

Strenuous training, particularly for endurance athletes like cyclists, can sometimes disrupt the delicate balance of your gut bacteria. This imbalance may lead to gastrointestinal issues and compromise immune function. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that contribute to the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome and can help restore and maintain the diversity of gut flora.

Prebiotics, found in foods like garlic, onions, and bananas, serve as fuel for these beneficial bacteria. Including both probiotics and prebiotics in your diet promotes a flourishing gut microbiome, positively influencing immune responses.

TOP TIP: Our top recommendation when trying to enhance your gut health is to incorporate probiotic-rich foods such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi into your diet. Not tried them before? Click on the links for our favourite brands. 

By incorporating some of the above strategies into your week, you should not only start to feel the benefits on the bike but also in general as you build a solid foundation for maintaining optimal health, ensuring you stay in top form to conquer any upcoming cycling challenges.

Need help to get started?

For more help on improving your nutrition, or reducing stress through yoga, check out our Njinga Cycling Academy. In addition to our library of over 350 hours of on-bike training sessions and plans, we also provide yoga and stretching sessions, core, mobility, strength, nutrition guidance, meal plans designed by sports nutritionists and pre and post-ride recipes to help any cyclist improve.


Categories: : nutrition, Ride Smart, Train Smart

and access our FREE Stretching video series. 

Includes: dynamic PRE-ride, static POST-ride, and restorative DEEP stretching routines, ensuring you start to feel the benefits immediately.