Connor Baxter's Top 5 Tips to Boost Your Immune System During Race Season
In May 2012, Connor Baxter was riding high. The previous fall the Maui-based phenom won the Elite category at California's Battle of the Paddle just after he turned 17. Following this success, Baxter continued to lay waste to the competition, winning the Namotu World Paddle Challenge, the grueling 23-mile "The Doctor" race in Australia, the Punta Sayulita SUP Classic, and the OluKai 8-mile Maliko downwinder.
But just before the 2012 Waikiki Paddle Fest, something went wrong. Badly wrong. Baxter had been focusing his training on the upcoming Molokai-2-Oahu 32-mile challenge while competing across the globe. His body told him "enough!" and he got a severe cough, just days before the Waikiki event. But, being the fierce competitor that he is, Baxter didn't listen to the warning signs, and decided to race anyway. And, he figured, if he was going to Waikiki against some of the sport's top athletes, he'd better go all out. What happened next proved that his body knew best.
After racing in Waikiki Paddle Fest's 'survivor' course, Baxter's body "freaked out," he says. First, he had walking pneumonia. Then, mono. Then, strep throat. The week of Molokai he was still reeling from this unholy trinity of illnesses, and was worried he wouldn't be able to complete the Ka’iwi Channel crossing that he'd been preparing for all season. On the Thursday before the race, Baxter started to feel a little better. The next day, he went for a short, easy paddle. And then, ready or not, he lined up along the world's best open water paddlers. The race was one for the ages, with Baxter and legendary waterman Dave Kalama going stroke for stroke as the lead went back and forth. In the end, Baxter somehow pulled away, winning by 30 seconds and setting a new course record.
While he savored the victory, Baxter knew something had to change. He couldn't endure another illness-plagued stretch, which threatened to not only derail his entire 2012 season, but also put his long-term health in jeopardy. So he took decisive action, overhauling his entire approach to eating, recovery, and race planning. Here are Baxter's top 5 tips to boost your immune system during race season:
1. Get Blood Work Done
If you take an honest look at what you're eating and how you're performing, you can start to make some educated guesses on what nutrients you might be lacking. But until you get blood tests, you'll never know for sure what changes you should make. "Getting blood work showed that I was really low in potassium," Baxter said. This led to a simple fix: he started eating more bananas, which helped him better balance electrolytes for improved race endurance and better recovery. You can search for local nutritional scientists or use a service such as Precision Food Works or WellnessFX.
2. Eat Well to Perform Well
When Baxter evaluated his diet, he realized that he wasn't eating right to fuel his world champion-level performance, and that if he shook things up on the food front he could perform even better come race day. This meant including more healthy options such as spirulina, which is not only a complete protein source, but also high in vitamin B-12, which can increase oxygen uptake by assisting red blood cell development and vitamin K, which reduces inflammation. "I've also got into juicing—basically any fruits and vegetables I can find in the refrigerator," Baxter says. He's also embracing the power of endurance-increasing beets and spinach, a fine choice for iron, which, among other things, supports a healthy immune system.
3. Sleep and Nap More
Baxter's globetrotting schedule—he just raced in Germany, flew back to Maui and will soon head back to Germany again—makes it difficult to get proper rest, but for Baxter sleep is a priority. "I've always been a good sleeper!" he says, and gets at least eight or nine hours of shuteye per night, no matter which country or time zone he's in. If your sleep gets cut short, try to carve out time for a 15- to 45-minute nap. Just be sure to stay away from your tablet, phone and laptop beforehand—looking at a screen has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns.
4. Make the Most of Active Recovery Days
Baxter used to train intensely almost every day. Since his sickness-plagued 2012 season, he's more calculated in backing off when his body tells him that a full-on paddling session isn't going to fly. This can either mean taking a full rest day or cross training with another activity at lower intensity. "If I wake up and don't feel like I can go at it hard, then I don't," Baxter says. "Maybe I'll just go windsurfing for fun, or surf." Take a cue from the champ and learn when you need to dial back your training. Focusing on mobility, taking a walk, or revisiting a sport you haven't done in a while (remember that old tennis racket in your garage?) are all solid options for active recovery.
5. Pick and Choose Races
"If I could teleport, I could do five SUP races every weekend," Baxter says. But realizing that pursuing a jam-packed race calendar contributed to his illness issues, Baxter is now more selective about which events he competes in and which he stays away from. Right now, that means focusing his attention on SUP's banner events. "It's all about Molokai right now," he says. While one of the biggest names in SUP can afford to be a little choosier than a recreational athlete with a limited travel budget, Baxter's advice still holds for the rest of us. Pick no more than a couple of races a month, and be sure to back off your training in the days following a downwind or intense sprint event so your body has the chance to recover. Your immune system will thank you.
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