Getting back to cycling after illness

Rebecca Bland
5 minutes

Over on our Spoked community (join here) we’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to safely return to cycling training after illness - particularly after Covid. While we are not physicians and our suggestions should not take the place of actual medical advice from a qualified practitioner, between the team we’ve had our fair share of illnesses, from a head cold to the flu and everything in between over the years and thought we could share what’s worked for us. 

Ease back into your training

Ride slow and easy. The worst thing you can do is to start training and try to get straight back into the full swing of your training post illness. Yes, your fitness will have dropped, but depending on the length of time you’ve been off the bike, it may only be your top end, aka the anaerobic power that’s gone, with your base fitness still hanging on. 

A rider can skip a session based on a number of reasons
As a cyclist you can easily skip a session based on illness and a number of other reasons

By not easing your body back into training you risk making yourself ill again. Don’t push through any lingering illness as your immune system might not be able to handle it and the extra pressure can extend the sickness or make you worse. The best thing to do is take a recovery week approach to your riding, or even better, schedule in some low intensity free rides. 

Only once you feel fully recovered should you even think about adding any level of intensity. If you’re a racer or have a big event planned that you’ve spent months training for, this may be a bitter pill to swallow. But start slow and ease into it to help your body and immune system recover as much as it needs. 


A typical week of easing back in in training plans could look like:

Day 1 - Ride 30 mins @ easy pace 

Day 2 - Rest day 

Day 3 - Ride 60 mins @ easy pace with 2 x 6 min @ uncomfortable pace 

Day 4 - Ride 45 min @ easy pace 

Day 5 - Ride 60 mins @ easy pace with 2 x 12 min progressive efforts (start at easy pace and build to a hard pace in the last 1-2 minutes)

If you can get through something like this without any issues, then you’re good to go and ready to reintroduce your training schedule!

If you are still experiencing issues even after you thought you’d recovered from your illness, or your immune system isn't enjoying the extra training stress, either try to reduce your sessions in duration, or stop the sessions altogether until you feel better. 

You can easily edit your training time anytime during the week and your training plan will automatically adjust
You can easily edit your training time anytime during the week and your training plan will automatically adjust

How do I know if I am ready to return to training?

Even if you’re finely in tune with your body you might still have some questions about whether or not you should be adding intensity back into your cycling training. Even if its something like common cold, it's better to air on the side of caution when it comes to restarting your cycling training. The rule of thumb is to first start easy like we’ve outlined above with an easy ride or two. Then, there are a couple of markers you can look out for to make sure you’re up for adding some intensity. 

Firstly, are you feeling knackered after an easy session or physical activity? If so, take a couple more days training at  a lower intensity to aid recovery and fully get back to your normal health. Second, keep an eye on your heart rate. Regular cyclists that track things like heart rate will know what when things look a bit off.

If you’ve been off the bike for a while it’s normal to see your HR raise in lower zones or working harder than normal, but if it’s sky high even in easier zones 1 and 2, then it’s time to rethink adding in any intensity. Only once your overall average heart rate has settled in your easy rides should you think about intervals. 

Within the Spoked upload form you are asked how hard the session was. This is compared the actual difficulty for the workout.
Within the Spoked upload form you are asked how hard the session was. This is compared the actual difficulty for the workout.

Additionally, and a lot of wearables and watches monitor this now as athletes have begun to recognise its importance in training knowledge, but watch your resting HR when you wake up in the morning. Among other variables, your resting HR being raised can indicate extra stress on your body, so typically when you are ill you’ll see some extra BPM first thing in the morning. If this has stabilised then that’s a good indicator you’re ready to get back on your bike. 

The other metric people tend to associate with stress and illness is heart rate variability. This is the variable time between your heart beats. Even if your heart rate is 60 BPM, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your heart beats once a second. While we won’t get into the full details here, essentially, a lower heart rate variability than normal can indicate stress, illness or disease.

The biggest thing is that you’ve been symptom free for at least a few days - but this depends entirely on what illness you had! If it’s Covid, the recommendations seem to suggest waiting a bit longer. For example, Cycling Ireland suggests waiting to cycle until you’ve had no symptoms for 7 days. As always, follow the advice of a medical professional before returning to any strenuous activity if you’re unsure. 

Finally, if you’re desperate to get back onto your bike, that’s a good sign! If reaching for a cup of tea or coffee suddenly isn’t the most strenuous thing you want to do all day, then maybe it’s time to bring your bike back into the picture and resume training.

When you plan a free ride in Spoked, you can ride the intensity you want and Spoked will adjust your training plan
When you plan a free ride in Spoked, you can ride the intensity you want and Spoked will adjust your training plan

Remember there is more to life than the bike

This might not be what you want to hear but the time off the bike may do you some good - you can use this time period to address muscular weaknesses, get some quality stretching in, and go for gentle walks. Time off the bike doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. 

You can even start to plan the rest of your year or season - what goals do you want to achieve on or off the bike? Or perhaps you want to take this time to dial in your nutrition plans, and finally figure out how many carbs you should be taking on board during your rides. 

In some cases, getting sick might have been a sign you were overdoing things anyway. If you’re working hard every time you get on the bike and not backing it up with proper rest or nutrition, your body might just be crying out for a rest. 

Spoked tracks how you are physically and mentally. If you're consistently mentally stressed it's early warning signs you're over doing it.
Spoked tracks how you are physically and mentally. If you're consistently mentally stressed it's early warning signs you're over doing it.

Everyone is different, and being forced apart from your bike is hard, but know that your body needs the time to rest and recuperate, and sometimes not doing a great deal is just what it needs to get you back to fighting fitness. Trust the process, and don't be tmpted to rush back onto the bike, as many cyclists do at the first sign of recovery from illness.

Final thoughts

We know that most people will not be relishing any time they’re forced off the bike, and that’s why it’s so important to really listen to your body. Trying to get back into the swing of things too early can leave you at risk for not fully recovering and making your recovery last longer than it needed to be. 

Make sure you’re feeling much better and take things slow before you add in any intensity. If you have any doubts, talk to a medical professional who can give tailored advice regarding your condition. 

If you really are going stir crazy though, why not try and make the most of your time off the bike by trying new things. Perhaps it’s working on your mental strength or mindfulness. Or maybe you’ve been putting off working on your flexibility or stretching. Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind and ready to put in the hard work when you do get back on the bike, rather than forcing it too soon.

Spoked is adaptable and can alter your training based on your performances, mental state, and physical feelings. For this and more, head to the Play Store or the App Store to download the Spoked app and get a 14 day free trial.