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How to get back on the bike if you've been ill

The bugs are out to get you, and sometimes they will… so what do you do to stay fit then? Dave Smith deploys his soothing bedside manner to explain

I hope you survived the attacks today, it’s tough out there. You pretty much can’t get through a day without multiple assaults from bacteria, viruses, fungi and various ghastly little parasites.

Most days, most of us win the battle with the immune system and nasal mucus at full alert and repelling all invaders. In addition, moderate exercise and a healthy diet will strengthen the immune system and help you stay free from illness.

Short hard training has no impact on immune function and moderate intensity exercise actually boosts your immune system and helps keep you healthy.

However extended periods or one off extreme episodes of harder training, like long high intensity endurance sessions (like err… long hard rides), will leave your immune system compromised and leave you more susceptible to falling ill.

Essentially, too much or too little exercise makes you more likely to get ill, and moderate amounts, equating to 3-4 moderate endurance sessions and a couple of resistance sessions per week will maximise your immune response.

You have a natural or innate immunity, such as chemical barriers, natural killer cells, mucus linings and also an acquired immunity in which your immune system ‘learns’ how to deal with specific threats. There is evidence that heavy resistance training, such as weights, enhances innate immunity and that moderate aerobic exercise strengthens the adaptive mechanisms.

Sometimes the bugs win

But what if for whatever reason, training stress or otherwise, the bugs have their victory and you get ill? What should you do, can you exercise, when can you resume your normal training?

The advice may be better than you feared.

For the purpose of brevity, assume that by illness I mean the most common ailments – cold, sore throat, food poisoning and Ebolan Cat Aids.

Firstly, when you get ill, forget about training, but consider exercising.

If your symptoms are mild – sniffles, sore throat, coughing etc you could go for a walk, do some stretching or easy ride on rollers with no resistance. However if you have fever, muscle/joint aches, headache, vomiting, just rest.

Generally, light resistance work and easy aerobic exercise is fine, but it should be well below the level that you would consider training. But it could enhance your cycling. Deal with the tight hamstrings and weak triceps that make getting aero a problem for you. Do some mental imagery training on your cornering ability. Watch some inspiring racing videos, read some books on training. Don’t just fester for days and weeks feeling miserable... trust me, I tried it. All I discovered was that cortisone is awesome!

Whatever you do, weigh up whether it’s likely to enhance or hinder recovery. The ideal is to get healthy and training again as soon as possible.

Don't rush things

Let your symptoms be the gauge as to what is a feasible amount of exercise to do. If you have a cold, it’s unlikely that a 30 minute brisk walk will be harmful and may boost your mood and immune function. If you’re coughing up gunk, maybe give the hill reps a miss.

Bear in mind as you start to feel better that the symptoms will clear before the infection is fully out of your system. I like to wait until I’ve been symptom free for 3-4 days before I resume moderate training – when an infection is present without symptoms it’s known as sub-clinical and too much stress as soon as the symptoms have gone could send you back to the pity-party.

Allow as long as you were ill for to get back to where your training was before. It may not take that long, but have that as the schedule.

Keeping the bugs at bay

In order to stay illness free in future, ensure a sound diet, wash your hands, allow adequate recovery from training. Take steps to keep stress levels down, ensure you get quality sleep and after really hard sessions, try and avoid disease carrying objects, such as people. Eat, get warm, and hide away for an hour or so. Certainly avoid crowds of children!

Finally, if you hold a race licence double check whether your medication could deliver a 2-year ban. Some over the counter remedies are on the banned list – the best resource to check is at

Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.

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