Back in 2011, Posner et al. published a descriptive study called “Epidemiology of Major League Baseball Injuries”. The researchers reviewed all the injuries reported in MLB from 2002 to 2008 and classified them based on anatomical region. As expected, there was a lot of disabled list time attributed to injuries to shoulders, elbows, hamstrings, low backs, hands, and wrists – and a host of other maladies.
Interestingly, “illness” accounted for 1.1% of all “injuries.” No big deal, right? Players get the flu, food poisoning, and the occasional migraine, so this is actually surprisingly low.
Actually, it’s a very misleading number. You see, as the study authors point out in their “methods” section, “We utilized data only for those injuries that resulted in a player being placed on the disabled list.”
In other words, “illness” was only counted if it landed a player on the 15-day disabled list. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been sick enough to miss 15 days at work. Even when I got sick as a kid, I was usually back in school within two days because I got sick of watching the same episode of Sportscenter 18 times per day.
Before I digress too much, let me get to my point:
[bctt tweet="Illness is actually remarkably underreported in professional sports."]
Just because a guy is sick doesn’t mean he goes on the disabled list. As an example, take A’s pitcher Sonny Gray’s food poisoning incident in 2015, where he missed a start in the middle of the summer. In 2015, as one of the best pitchers in baseball, Gray was 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA. In the 31 starts he made, he put up a 3.7 WAR (wins above replacement) number, which equates to a WAR of 0.12 per start. According to Fangraphs, each WAR was worth $7.7 million in 2015 – so Gray’s food poisoning cost the team $924,000 – but definitely didn’t count against any disabled list time. Additionally, he was scratched from his opening day start in 2016 for the same reason – and it still wasn’t included in the man games lost total.
Moreover, just because a guy is sick doesn’t mean he even misses a game. I’ve heard plenty of stories of MLB guys praying to the porcelain gods between innings – and games where an entire team gets ravaged by the flu, but still has to go out and play.
What’s the take-home point? The individuals who manage to not get sick are the ones who make better progress over the long haul. Avoiding those 3-4 periods of sickness each year is on par with avoiding tweaking your lower back and missing a month in the gym.
[bctt tweet="The goal is consistency, and injury/sickness are big roadblocks to a consistent training effect."]
Here’s where I’ll toot my own horn a little bit. My wife and I have twin daughters who were born in November of 2014. I’ve only been sick once since they were born. And, this is with co-owning two gyms in two states on top of my normal writing, consulting, and speaking responsibilities, which includes travel at least once a month. Staying healthy while managing a life’s craziness has somehow become right in my wheelhouse. With that in mind, I think you can break down your ability to stay healthy into three big categories:
1. Sleep Quality
I came across this Tweet a few months ago, and it became one of my all-time favorites:
The one time I got sick was when I was really pushing my luck on sleep deprivation and trying to make up for it with extra caffeine consumption. Doing so always saps your immunity in the long run.
Interestingly, I’ve been rocking a Fitbit since back in May. And, while I don’t think it’s perfectly accurate, it does give a pretty accurate measure of when you go to bed and when you wake up. Since September 1, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that my weekly average sleep duration is always at least seven hours per night.
It’s had a massive impact on how I’ve felt in the gym. Normally, my training is terrible in December and January when our busiest seasons in the gym are upon us. This year, I felt strong – and without any aches and pains. Sleep tracking - no matter how basic it may be - can have a dramatic impact on your immunity and, in turn, your performance.
2. Overall Stress
"Stress" means something different to everyone. As an example, I could work 18-hour days for weeks on end without feeling stressed, yet if you ask me to stand on the 4th floor of a building and look over the edge, my cortisol levels would be off the charts. I'm terrified of heights, but not long hours. Other folks are the exact opposite.
One thing we can all agree on, though, is that training is a big stressor - regardless of whether it's higher volume endurance training or higher intensity weight training. If you want to stay healthy, you have to fluctuating that training stress so that you remain in overload and overreach mode without slipping into true overtraining scenarios. I cover this in much more detail in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.
3. Nutritional practices.
A discussion of proper nutrition and supplementation habits to optimize immunity has been the topic of entire books, so I won't even attempt to do the topic justice in a matter of a few sentences (although this article from over a decade ago tested the waters in that regard: Invincible Immunity).
I can speak to personal experience when I say that I feel the best when I hydrate sufficiently, get in enough total calories, and eat plenty of healthy fats and vegetables. I'm also a huge advocate of Athletic Greens, which I take religiously every single day. I use it instead of a multivitamin, and also like the fact that it includes some digestive enzymes and probiotics for gut health.
It's not rocket science, but that's because it doesn't have to be complex. Getting sick is about your ability to fend off stress to your system. Two of these factors - sleep quality and nutrition - are about warding off the stress. The third factor is about managing the amount of stress actually imposed to the system. Critically examine these three broad realms if you want to find ways to stay healthy!
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