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KGB Vol 11: Preventing illness in a team setting

Maybe it’s just me, but it always seemed like the stretch of hockey from January through February felt the most challenging. These are the “hard yards” of the hockey season. This is the time of year when the weather can be unforgiving, you wake up in the dark and often get home in the dark. 

Within a team setting, this is the time of year when every wretched upper respiratory infection runs rampant through the team. Hopefully, this year will not result in a bunch of COVID cases continuing to plague rosters all over the world in many sports. This “dark time” can also be an opportunity for discipline to really shine through, and team points earned in this valuable stretch can set up a long and healthy end-of-the-season run.

Here are some thoughts on respiratory infections and team sports:

“…moderate exercise is associated with a lower risk of infection, while vigorous exercise performed with frequency or density may lead to an increase in the risk of infection by contributing to a diminishing of immunosurveillance” (Nieman 1997). 

Simply stated, the harder you practice and play consistently, the lower your immune system functions. This is a concept that most coaches are aware of but, just to be clear, this concept should have an impact on practice structure and the “training load” we put players under. In some settings, there are fancy devices to help coaches with decision-making in this realm. If you don’t have those tools, just appreciate that the initial 12 hours after intense competition are the most crucial to restore the function of the immune system. When the training load is high for a longer period of time, it could take up to 36 hours for the body to return to “normal.” 

Taking the deep dive into athlete monitoring might not be in the cards, but it is worth acknowledging the concept of high- and low-output days. High-output would be high intensity over a longer period of time. Low days could also have some degree of intensity but a lower duration. At times, it helps to drop both intensity and duration. If you want to get a bit more up-to-speed, here is a great read on monitoring athletes. 

How does this impact decisions regarding intensity on the individual level? How can you “find your grind”?

As an individual, it is important to appreciate that the term “training load” applies across a spectrum of stressors. Sports are stressful, but so is the school routine, family life, and social activities. Stress is a cumulative total not simply an event-based occurrence. Let’s face it: there is literally chaos all around us. The reality is that there are many things out of our control, so let’s highlight a few ways to help optimize your natural immune function by controlling what you can.

  • Step one: WASH YOUR HANDS!
  • Step two: SLEEP 

Learning to appreciate the value of a good night’s sleep and even napping is crucial. Each person requires a different amount of sleep to run their best but, in general, seven or more hours each night is pretty much a good rule. Napping can be very effective, but limiting it to 20 minutes or 90 minutes are good options versus simply napping until you wake up. Don’t underestimate the value of a good nap.


Nutrient density is a simple term for foods that are full of nutrients (vitamins and minerals). This includes food like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed sources of protein. We really want to emphasize these foods in the 12-hour window before and after intense exercise, but it is a better practice to focus on food quality in 36-hour windows pre- and post-competition. 

Nutrition can be difficult and lack of discipline in this category is a deal-breaker. Try to simplify your meals and stick with what you know you like as well as something you can eat consistently. Ground beef, your favorite rice option, and some vegetables can be a cost-effective and powerful meal composition. If you are not a great cook and need some help, search for a healthy meal delivery service for these crucial meals and avoid the temptation to eat burrito bowls for every meal. 

If you just can’t see yourself eating any vegetables, at least keep up with a good multivitamin or greens powder. When it comes to water, try to keep hydrated 24/7. If you need some guidance, drinking half your body weight in ounces of water is a good place to start. 


Precision Nutrition

The concept of active recovery springs out of our basic knowledge about the effects of overtraining. Some exercise is good to stimulate the immune system and too much can suppress it. Just lying around playing video games or browsing social media is not the answer, either. (That’s the definition of “sedentary.”) 

Low intensity activity can help the body stimulate its natural immune response and hopefully move back to baseline faster. There are any number of options here, but actively looking for what works is the main consideration. Walking, yoga, massage, home stretching routines, compression, sauna, cold tub, the list goes on and on for recovery strategies. Use what works for you, stick with the basics, and don’t go looking for the magical recovery unicorn in a pill or potion.

DID I MENTION ADEQUATE SLEEP? Despite many folks’ braggadocious assertions about not needing more than four hours’ sleep, it matters…a lot.


This is a long, complex conversation and it hits people differently at various points in their lives. For the majority of us, it is nearly impossible to set a goal of completely removing stress and chasing a Zen-type lifestyle. Most people will actually have greater success by simply recognizing what stress is and looking for ways to manage it more effectively. Rather than setting an unrealistic goal of avoiding stress, plan for it, create a contingency plan that helps establish balance. 

For example, an impromptu meeting after practice may put pressure on the rest of a player’s social and/or educational calendar. A solution might be that players build in 30-45 minutes after practice for these types of additional encounters. If they don’t happen, then the player gains a little extra time. If the meeting is needed, it won’t challenge the schedule and cause stress. It will allow everyone to be more present in that moment. 

I have personally found that making these types of structural changes in the schedule takes a couple of weeks to implement. Be willing to have some transition time when making contingency plans for stress reduction. Maybe you don’t have the ability to extend your day. There is another route: Learning to politely say “no” to requests of your time and offering an alternative solution is a great communication skill to practice. (Just saying “no” is not good enough. Being ready to have an alternative solution that includes some kind of empathy for the other person by appreciating that they have a personal schedule to keep is a great way to find some common ground and protect your schedule.) 

Finally, what if you do get sick?   

This conversation around staying healthy in the hard yards of hockey is the performance coaching sweet spot. Working with individuals on finding their own personal recovery tools to prevent illness or injury is a very valuable use of time. When the coaching staff recognizes the need for recovery and the players take advantage of those moments, the ship starts sailing in the right direction from a health and human performance perspective. 

The hope is that this approach results in greater outcomes during the competition phase of training and improved health in these hard months of the hockey season. However, if you do get sick and especially if you have an elevated temperature, don’t try to power through. Take the day off. Seeking proper medical attention, prioritizing rest, and locking down quality nutrition is mandatory at this phase

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