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What nutrition speeds return to running after respiratory tract infection?

Feb 07, 2024

When upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) like cold, flu, or COVID-19 strike runners, it disrupts training and progress. But don't worry! This blog post offers strategies to help you recover faster. Learn how to manage poor appetite, combat fatigue and changes in taste/smell, use immune-boosting nutrients, maintain body composition, and make smart training decisions while sick. Get ready to conquer the road to speedy recovery!

How can URTI impact your nutrition as a distance runner?

The symptoms of URTI such as loss of appetite, fatigue, shortness of breath and changes to taste and smell can make eating and drinking challenging. This can lead to losing weight and muscle without meaning to, weakness, worsened fatigue and poor recovery. Incorporating strategies to support eating well during URTI will help with a speedier recovery so you can get back to training at your best sooner.

What can I do to manage poor appetite?

Poor appetite is a common symptom of URTI, particularly for influenza and COVID-19. To manage this try:

  • Smaller, frequent meals and snacks
  • Prioritise nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, dairy foods and wholegrains
  • Include high protein foods at meals and snacks to minimise muscle loss, e.g. meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, legumes, nuts and soy products
  • Include calorie-dense foods such as avocados, nuts, nut butters, full fat dairy foods, olive oil, almond meal, honey, syrup, jam, smoothies and milkshakes to boost calories
  • Avoid diet foods and unnecessary diet restrictions whilst unwell
  • Try nutritional supplement drinks, e.g. Sustagen and Up & Go if you are finding it difficult to eat meals and snacks
  • Stay well-hydrated by consuming fluids like water, herbal tea, and clear broths

What can I do to manage fatigue?

Fatigue is a common symptom of all types of URTI. To manage this try:

  • Rest and prioritise sleep to allow your body to recover efficiently
  • Cook meals in bulk and freeze them
  • Include nutritious fluids such as flavoured milk, smoothies and nutritional supplement drinks when you are too tired to eat a meal
  • Have your shopping home-delivered
  • Have quick, easy snacks available, such as nuts, muesli bars, cheese and crackers and yoghurt
  • Ask friends and relatives to cook some meals or try a meal delivery service

What can I do to manage changes to taste and smell?

Changes to your taste and smell are common symptoms of COVID-19 and can make eating and drinking less enjoyable.

  • Experiment with herbs, spices, pepper, chutneys and pickles in cooking
  • If you are struggling with the strong taste of hot foods, try cold foods instead
  • If you go off a particular food, try it again regularly as your tastes may continue to change

Can any nutrients speed my recovery?

Zinc: Zinc is a crucial mineral for growth, development, and metabolism. It boosts the immune system and can potentially shorten the duration of URTIs. Foods like meat, fish, poultry, fortified cereals, and milk are good sources of zinc. Zinc supplements are also available and can be beneficial. Studies have shown that 5 days of zinc supplementation can reduce common cold symptoms by almost half. However, it's important to note that zinc does not treat bacterial infections, influenza, or COVID-19. Excessive zinc intake can be toxic and cause side effects like a bad taste, nausea, and constipation.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is vital for immune health, energy metabolism, collagen production, and cell protection. It can be found abundantly in fruits and vegetables like broccoli, potatoes, capsicum, kiwi fruit, berries, and citrus fruits. Athletes often consider vitamin C supplementation for managing cold symptoms, but it only reduces duration by about 8% and has some impact on severity. High-dose vitamin C supplementation may negatively affect training adaptations. It's best to obtain enough vitamin C through eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. If needed, consider a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Combination supplements of vitamin C and zinc are available, but zinc alone seems to offer more benefits based on research.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is crucial for immunity, but when you're sick and indoors, you may lack sunlight to produce it. Try spending time outdoors daily. If that's not possible, consider a low-dose vitamin D supplement. If your illness persists, consult your doctor to check your vitamin D levels.

It is always best to consult with your GP, sports physician and/or Accredited Practicing Dietitian before starting any new supplements and follow recommended dosage guidelines to avoid negative effects.

Is it ok to lose weight or optimise body composition for performance while I’m sick?

When unwell, prioritise weight maintenance over weight loss or body composition changes. Altering weight and body composition involves reducing energy intake, which limits energy for the immune system to combat illness. To avoid prolonging or worsening your illness, postpone long-term weight loss and body composition goals until you're fully recovered.

Can I train while I’m sick?

Deciding whether to exercise when unwell is tricky. Listen to your body and prioritise recovery. Here are some general guidelines:

  • For mild symptoms like a runny nose or mild sore throat, light jogging or walking may be acceptable. Intensive training can resume a few days after symptoms resolve.
  • With symptoms like fever, extreme tiredness, muscle aches, and swollen lymph glands, allow 2-4 weeks before returning to intensive training.
  • For COVID-19, specific guidelines exist. Endurance athletes should consult a GP or sports physician for guidance due to increased risks of fatigue, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) and prolonged respiratory symptoms.


Recovering from a URTI as a runner requires patience and a holistic approach. Prioritise rest, maintain proper nutrition, and seek medical advice to ensure a smooth and efficient recovery. By following strategies to manage symptoms, considering the benefits of certain nutrients like zinc and vitamin C, refraining from focusing on weight loss or body composition goals while sick, and making informed decisions about training, you can improve recovery and get back to running at your best. Be patient, take care of yourself, and before you know it, you'll be back on the road, conquering your running goals like a champ!

To book a performance strategy call to discuss the exact steps to perform at your best for your next big event click here!

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Okafor PN et al 2019, ‘Practical Nutrition Recommendations for the Athlete with Upper Respiratory Tract Infection’, Curr Sports Med Rep, vol. 18, iss. 2, pp. 45-50.

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