HALLELUJAH! At last I’ve discovered some good news about getting older. Apparently as we progress through our 50s and beyond we tend to catch fewer colds!
There’s nothing worse for a Clapped-Out Runner than having to miss a race or a key training session for something as piffling as a little head cold. Of course we know to be circumspect when it comes to plantar fasciitis or myositis ossificans. But a pesky upper respiratory tract infection? Get out of here.
The winter running season officially arrived this week as far as I am concerned (cross-country in Chelmsford’s Hylands Park), and one of my main targets is to get through the next six months without catching a cold or any other winter virus.
My Old Grey Training Log was consulted this week and revealed that over the last 10 winters I’ve caught a total of 11 colds, nine of which were head colds and two a bit worse (man-flu?). Statistics from one website reckoned this tally was normal for an adult from the western world, while another reckoned it was below the average.
Rarely does a winter go by without at least one cold, so it was encouraging to read that generally we catch fewer the older we get. After the age of 50, the average person suffers 1-2 per year, whereas 20-somethings have 2-3 and small children many more. There are around 200 known cold viruses, and by the time you’ve hit middle age it seems you’ve had most of them and therefore built up resistance.
Picking my way through the tosh and piffle you tend to find on the internet, I found it was commonly believed you can only catch any of the 200 cold viruses once. Also, by the time you’re 50 you’ve probably had well over half of them. That’s all right then.
But the main reason for catching fewer colds is that older people tend to spend less of their lives in contact with cute little kiddies, who are actually contagious little rug-rats (bless!) and undoubtedly the main reservoir of cold viruses. Additionally, the old and decrepit spend less time shaking hands and kissing everyone they meet, not to mention sharing office coffee cups and biscuit barrels.
Other ways that the old ‘uns avoid viruses are by wearing gloves on public transport, and by avoiding gyms and health clubs. Gyms are sweaty, warm places and the ideal breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, I am told. Many venues make a feeble effort at combatting this by urging you to bring a towel to wipe down the machines before and after use. Right. Just don’t touch anybody else’s towel is probably better advice.
Being fit, healthy and outdoorsy should mean us runners succumb to viruses less often than Mr and Mrs Average - but don’t forget that if you over-train and get constantly exhausted, your immune system could become knackered. There’s a fine line to be trod.
Every rule has its exceptions, though, and a certain Simon Coombes on the Runners World forum reckons he always “trains like an idiot”, but hasn’t had a cold for more than five years. He credits this to the copious amounts of fizzy Vitamin C he consumes.
The idea that we runners can catch a cold because we are often under-dressed, or wearing wet clothes, in cold weather, is of course a myth. You have to have a virus to catch cold - getting damp and chilly alone won’t do it. It follows that you're far more likely to be vulnerable by staying indoors with the central heating turned up. That’s what we fresh-air freaks always say, anyway.
OK, so stay outside and stop touching each other. What else should we do?
Many reckon nasal sprays are good news. Vick’s First Defence and others are jelly-like substances which coat the virus so it can’t attach itself to the lining of the nose. Being slightly acidic (which cold viruses dislike) stimulates are secreted to wash the virus away. This all sounds like good sense and research has apparently proved the sprays can halve the likelihood of getting a cold.
Another good way to avoid colds is to banish stress. Easier said than done, that one. A research project in the USA saw 276 healthy volunteers asked about the stresses in their lives, before cold viruses were deliberately plonked inside their nostrils. Nice work if you can get it.
Those who had reported chronic stress - especially troubles with partners, family or friends - were found to be more than twice as likely to get a cold after their noses had been fiddled around with. Chronic stress affects the immune system was the conculsion. Chill out to avoid a chill, folks.
If you’re willing to pay heed to the clever dicks who post on the Runners World forum, you might be interested in the claims of NeonBlueMidnight. He or she recently announced: “ I'm one of those people who never gets flu and colds, the last time I can remember being sick was chicken pox at around 6 or 7. The secret is being easy on your body so your immune system has enough energy to deal with invasions. Eating a minimal amount of toxic food is key.
“Cut out processed foods and make the majority of your diet from fresh fruit and vegetables, eating a minimum of anything cooked.” Do as I do, postulated NeonBlueMidnight, and you’ll never get a virus, “Even if you lick the pole on the subway!”
One last point: If we do catch a cold (and chances are we will), should we stick to the famous old adage ‘Feed a cold, starve a fever.’? Oh dear. It’s another old wives’ tale, apparently. There’s no real evidence to back it up, the only agreed advice being to drink plenty of fluids in either case.
Which backs up my own theory: The best thing for man-flu is simply to get another round of Guinness in.
* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on the history of running: www.robhadgraft.com