Doctor and marathoner Elsey Davis talks us through her own journey of trying to do her utmost to support her immune system amongst a stressful job and high mileage training. 

My immunity used to be dreadful. Working in a hospital I am constantly exposed to a variety of bugs so in my first few years as a junior doctor, when I was run ragged working full time and trying to run 90-100 mile weeks, I caught it all. Probably best there wasn’t a global pandemic at that stage.

When I started training hard and running lots of miles I didn’t appreciate the importance of protecting my immune system and spent at least a year with illness after illness.

One of my first England vests was in Leeds to run the 10km. The days before I left I was working on a medical ward with an outbreak of norovirus (winter vomiting bug). When I arrived at the hotel I felt a bit iffy but thought “probably just nerves” the next day maybe felt a little worse but it wasn’t until I started that I realised something was not right then a mile in dropped into a heap on the side of the road.

It was mortifying, especially wearing my England kit and feeling like I had let the team down. It took more than 10 hours to drive back home to Cornwall, incredibly bleak. Needless to say, I never shared the grapes in the Doctor’s office again (wrapped quality street choccie remains ok though).

A learning curve 

Over the years I have read lots of research and sought professional advice on how better to look after my immune system. As runners, getting ill is rather inconvenient. It means setbacks in training, missing races, increasing injury risk etc etc.

So I thought for my first Fast10 blog I’d share a bit about my experience and how I’ve managed to support my immune system the best I can. I’m by no means an expert but I am a doctor with a particular personal interest in avoiding infections as an athlete. Plus I must be doing something right as I’ve survived a year working on and off covid wards illness free!

If I’m honest I kind of hope this level of PPE stays in the hospital, infection outbreaks seem to come at the worst possible times. Before my wedding there was a Norovirus outbreak on the ward and before my last marathon a flu outbreak. As if marathonoia isn’t enough, a week of exposure to flu is less than ideal a week out from a marathon.

A bit of luck and maybe a more experienced approach on both occasions meant no D+V for my wedding and no flu running, so a huge PB of 2.33. 

Burning the candle at both ends

A big turning point for me was cutting my work to part time. I used to have the mentality that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I even go as far as saying I got a kick out of flogging myself both at work and in training.

But I was constantly knackered. I dread to think what my cortisol levels were during that time.

Needless to say it did come crashing down as after a year of constant illnesses, culminating with my first stress fracture. Since working part time (still roughly 30 hours a week) I have time to do all the extra bits that are important, rest, mobility. Small changes, like not having to eat my lunch at 5pm in a cupboard on the ward quickly.

Goes without saying my stress levels plummeted too and stress can be another negative factor to health. I also just feel like a better doctor and runner. I’m able to give my patients a better version of myself and I am able to enjoy my running instead of fighting to keep my head above water. 

40 winks for the win

The value placed on sleep, both duration and quality of, is something that has changed too. Sleep is restorative and it’s when your immune function is at its best and our bodies repair. I read a book last year called “Why we sleep” by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.

It’s so interesting and there is lots of eye opening research out there. The advice is at least 8 hours a night but athletes tend to need more than this. I normally aim for 9-10 and if I’m unable for any reason try and find a window to nap.

Also probably important to mention I used to be a bit of a boozer too, medical students have a bit of a reputation for this. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a nice cold beer or glass of wine of an evening but moderation is key here. Boozing too much has negative effects on sleep and hydration, hence affecting ability to recover. 

Variety and balance with your food

Before meeting my wife there was always the same three meals on rotation. Fast forward to now and it’s a much more well-balanced, varied diet and it makes a big difference. I still treat myself to pizzas and takeaways but in-between those we enjoy cooking new recipes, with fresh ingredients and it feels like we’re getting more of the vitamins and minerals, and calories, I need.

This includes iron, vitamin c, magnesium as some of the key things to include that might have been lacking in the past, when my diet was a little less… interesting.

Cooking foods with fresh ingredients, from scratch where possible, will help keep things nutrient rich. In addition, after getting some advice from the well-known and brilliant sports dietician Renee Mccgregor I also started taking some probiotics.

It feels like the amount of upper respiratory tract infections I got halved and went from getting three colds a year to one at most. This is obviously anecdotal and could have been coincidence but there is a lot of evidence behind gut health and immunity which is beyond this little blog so I will leave it to the experts and for you to read up on at your leisure.  

Help your body do it’s job

That being said, all of the above is good for general illness avoidance but it is by no means a bullet proof way to protect yourself from Covid (There was certainly some luck involved for me there).

The closest  you will get to that is the vaccine, so a quick note on vaccines, I made sure I had good night’s kip after it for a few days, you want to get the best immune response possible and like I said most of this is when we sleep. I also avoided training hard for a few days to give my body chance to focus on the job at hand! 

I hope this is of help to some people, it’s nothing ground breaking but it took me a long time to start properly looking after myself and we’re all still learning.