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Recovering from long COVID - a cyclist's guide

We look at so-called ‘Long Covid’ and the after-effects of infection - what can cyclists who have suffered expect, and how can they safely resume life in the saddle?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, one of the few things that has become clear is that individual cases of the disease can have wildly different outcomes. 

Of course, there is the stark and tragic disparity between those who die of COVID and asymptomatic carriers who don’t even know they have it; but for cyclists and people who enjoy exercise, there are further levels of distinction as the various roads to recovery take their unique turns. Some people can resume life in the saddle after the initial infection almost as if nothing has happened, while others still aren’t up to full speed and continue to feel the debilitating effects of COVID months later.

So, what can you expect and how will you recover? We do our best to answer those questions here.

A disclaimer: we had planned to run this as a Q&A session with a qualified medical practitioner. However, the constantly evolving nature of the COVID pandemic – for example, as we went to press, the Health Secretary at the time Matt Hancock had just announced a new strain of the disease – along with health authorities’ restrictions on anything other than approved official guidelines, has meant that the frontline doctors we contacted were understandably hesitant to publicly put their name to any advice. So, for this article, we will be using official NHS guidance and specifically that found on the Your COVID Recovery website.

What is ‘Long COVID’?

Despite its increasing use in the media and among the public, there is no clinical definition of ‘Long COVID’. It generally refers to the longer-lasting effects of COVID infection beyond the initial acute phase. From browsing the comments on a number of cycling and sports forums, it is clear that some people who have contracted COVID are still finding it hard to return in full to their previous exercise regimes, even months after the initial infection.

According to the Your COVID Recovery website: “Clinicians and scientists across the world are working to find out what happens to people as they recover [from COVID]. They are also trying to identify any long term problems that occur… At the time of writing, we do not know exactly what will happen to people as they recover, however, there is a lot of information to help us… 

“Many people will make a full recovery. It may take weeks to a few months. We expect that some people will have ongoing symptoms of cough, breathlessness, poor or reduced sleep, fatigue, anxiety and low mood.”

Mavic Ksyrium Pro Allroad riding 1

What can I expect in terms of COVID recovery? 

Before we look at long-term physical recovery, it’s worth understanding what to expect as soon as you return to normal life after COVID; because the effects of even a relatively minor infection can be dramatic. 

One doctor who we spoke to for the purpose of this article, who contracted COVID himself, was shocked that on returning to work, he was left exhausted just from walking up the stairs to his office – as he had always done previously – and was reduced to taking the lift. So, be prepared initially to deal with some potentially significant impairments to your physical and even mental abilities, as COVID can also cause lack of concentration.

When it comes to longer-term recovery periods, it's then helpful to appreciate a couple of points: the first is that many viral infections, not just COVID, have the potential to ‘knock somebody for six’ and will require an extended recovery, that can take weeks or months. So, do not think this is a specifically unpleasant added extra in the case of COVID.

The second is that the severity of symptoms during a person’s initial acute infection can be a rough indication of how long recovery will take. COVID sufferers who were hospitalised, for example, will almost certainly take a longer time to recover than those who only had low-level symptoms. 

What’s the recovery time frame?

As with all things COVID, an individual’s recovery time frame is very much unique. Most symptoms of the initial, acute phase of COVID – fever, cough, a change in sense of smell, etc – will clear up within a couple of weeks. 

However for people who have had more severe symptoms during the acute phase, who were hospitalised, or who have other underlying health conditions, this recovery period can be significantly protracted. 

According to the Your COVID Recovery website: “For most people who have had the COVID infection and were severe enough to need hospital care, we would expect from experience with other similar bacterial and viral infections that in around:

  • 4 weeks most of the chest pains, and phlegm (sputum) should have reduced.
  • 6 weeks cough and feeling breathless should have greatly reduced.
  • 3 months most symptoms should have settled but tiredness may still be present.
  • 6 months symptoms should have all settled.”

People admitted into intensive care will often find that recovery takes longer than this, possibly up to a year.

Barbecue - dave asleep

How can I aid my recovery?

There is little you can do to speed up your physical recovery, although making sure you are getting enough sleep and eating well will go a long way to helping your general wellbeing. If you're finding even daily tasks tiring – quite aside from cycling or exercise – the NHS recommends conserving your energy by following the ‘3 Ps Principle – Pace, Plan and Prioritise’.

Although not all of these measures have a specific benefit to cyclists, there are still some relevant messages, especially in the Pace section, such as:

  • Give yourself permission to slow down. Don’t expect to be able to do everything at once, or at the pace you used to do. Do less than you think you can.
  • Break activities into smaller tasks and spread them throughout the day. You’ll recover faster if you work on a task until you are tired, rather than completely exhausted.
  • Build rests into your tasks and plan 30-40 minutes of rest breaks between activities. Resting is key to recharging your energy.

I don’t seem to be improving - when should I seek medical advice?

If your symptoms are steadily getting better, the likelihood is that recovery is just a matter of patience and time. Don’t push yourself too hard and cause your own relapses in fitness.

If you are concerned that things just aren’t improving as you’d expect, or you naturally start to experience worsening symptoms - such as being able to walk or cycle shorter distances before stopping because you are out of breath, or getting dressed more slowly in the morning - contact your GP or health team.

It’s particularly important to seek medical advice if you develop new symptoms, such as:

  • Swelling of a leg or arm
  • Chest pain
  • Losing more weight/not wanting to eat anything
  • A racing heart
  • Muscle aches

And, call 999 or 111 if you experience any of the following:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Severe chest pain
  • Getting more breathless
Doctors (CC licenced by Mercy Health:Flickr)

Although this is a busy time for the NHS, do not hesitate to get in touch with primary healthcare providers if you have a concern. The Your COVID Recovery website says: “Many people worry about calling the specialist teams or their general practice, thinking that there is too much work and pressure on services. In the NHS we are busy, but we would prefer you to contact us as we are here to support your recovery and will be doing our best to support you… Please do not feel that you are wasting NHS time, we want to help you to get better as quickly as possible especially if you develop new or worsening symptoms.”


The only indicator of a successful recovery is that people are able to resume their normal lives again, including exercise, even if only in moderation at first. So, remember these points:

  • Listen to your body and stay well within your new reduced limits
  • You cannot return immediately to the same level of cycling you had before infection (quite aside from any effects of ‘Long COVID’, your fitness levels will have dropped during the period you were ill)
  • Everyone’s recovery is different, and it may take weeks or months to fully recover
  • If in any doubt at all, contact your GP or local NHS for advice
  • For further post-COVID information, visit

Finally, if you have had COVID and are finding it hard to get back to your previous levels of cycling, rest assured you are far from alone. There is no point in rushing your return to full fitness, it will not speed things up and there is the potential to do yourself further harm. Recovery is more a test of patience than performance when it comes to this infuriating disease. 

Rehabilitation resources

For further reading, Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust has collated some excellent COVID recovery strategies on its Rehabilitation Resources page.

Further updates 

Since this article was first published, a NICE guideline titled "COVID-19 rapid guideline: managing the long-term effects of COVID-19" was published online. It's a lengthy and evolving document intended for health and care practitioners, health and care staff involved in planning and delivering services and commissioners - which will hopefully lead to an improvement in the treatments and recommendations given to long COVID sufferers. An article in The Lancet at the time said that while the guideline is welcomed, "certain gaps are evident and it will be crucial to fill them as soon as possible".

As of 17th August 2021, it's estimated that there have been over 6.3 million cases of COVID-19 in the UK. The latest release of an article on the Office for National Statistics website titled 'Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK' (dated 5th August 2021) estimated that 945,000 people living in private households in the UK were experiencing self-reported long COVID symptoms at 4th July 2021 - almost 1.5% of the population. This is slightly down from 962,000 at 6th June, but it's clear the problem is far from going away. 

Here are a selection of comments from readers that we've had across the site and social media: 

I caught what I thought was a chest infection in March last year, but now we know more about Covid it turns out there's a good chance I was unlucky to catch it early. My lungs haven't gotten back to normal and I have flare ups where the coughing and fatigue come back fairly regularly (at least one week a month). It's not crippling, but I can't ride anywhere near as much as I used to. It takes me as long to recover from a 30-40mile ride as a century would have beforehand. And I'm only 28, it's not something you want to mess with if you can avoid it.

Had covid and felt awful for 2-3 weeks. Started to feel better, had a couple of short rides (10-12 miles) to see how I would react and seemed ok. Did a 32 mile ride on New Years Day and that was that. Not ridden since and set me back to where I was. Had chest pain and coughing loads. Don't rush back and listen to your body.

My experience after catching it in March after a trip to the states was complete debilitating fatigue for around 4-5 days, unable to even get out of bed. Short of breath even going to the bathroom, then seriously fatigued for another 2-3 weeks before able to get back on the bike. Long term I'm noticing regular joint pain even when I've not been on the bike. 

Hopefully even more information and useful resources will be available for long COVID sufferers and medical professionals soon. It's very clear from the responses we've had and the prevalence of the problem reported in the national media that those who have been hit hard by the disease are far from outliers. In the meantime, we hope our readers who are still feeling the effects go on to make a full recovery, and that all of you stay safe and well until this pandemic is fully over. 

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Dingaling | 3 years ago
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My wife and I hadn't felt well since a week last Sunday. She was tested on Friday and a positive result came in on Sat. She had felt tired out and had had a strange/horrible taste in her mouth and I had cold symptons (slight temp., runny nose and occasional cough). From Wed. to last night I had no sense of smell. The local health office called, half an hour ago, to ask my wife to fill out on-line contact forms and tell her she has to quarantine until the 25th. (her 70th bday is on the 23rd so that will be a quiet event!). We are now just sitting around hoping that no further, or worse, symptoms develop and it leaves me wondering what my fitness will be like when I can get back on a bike.

I guess we can be grateful that it has all been as mild as it has been and hopefully remains so.


CXR94Di2 | 3 years ago

My wife and I have just got over Covid, before Xmas. Antibody blood test confirmed our exposure. We have felt pretty tired, but slowly clearing. Just a cough to clear now

Sriracha replied to CXR94Di2 | 3 years ago

Hope you recover fully.


Antibody blood test confirmed our exposure.

Did you not know at the time you were infectious that you had covid?

CXR94Di2 replied to Sriracha | 3 years ago

I suspected, but my wife thought it was a normal cold. We didn't get tested, just kept away from others. These days if you look off colour people give you a wide berth. The time was well spent, as we were going to get the 'Lateral flow test'. But research said it was far too unreliable with only 50% chance of providing a correct diagnosis.

Hence blood test for antibodies

PRSboy | 3 years ago
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Funnily enough I heard a Professor on R4 this morning, saying that among other things, something they'd learned about treating it was the importance of hydration, to help with kidney and other functions that are impaired by the inflammation brought on by C19.

The problem with C19 is the randomness of it; I've a few friends in the 40-60 age bracket who've had it, and the symptoms they've displayed or the severity do not seem connected with their age or fitness.  Truly 'grace of God' stuff.  If you've not had it, or had it mildly, then this is cause to be very grateful, not complacent.

AlsoSomniloquism replied to PRSboy | 3 years ago

Myself and the wife had it in March mild, she lost taste and smell for 3 months or so but nothing else longterm which was lucky as she has bad asthma.

I've been crap on the bike but place that on literally halfing all my miles etc this year and not being as active (weight gone up, Speed gone down).

But her colleague who gave it her was hit bad. Not hospitalised but must have been close with breathing problems 2-3 months later and still has to cough up crap lining his throat when he wakes up in the morning. 


60kg lean keen ... | 3 years ago

I tested postive 10th April (NHS front line comunity care), It took Me till June before back in work, and I could not ride a bike properly or do anything more than the basics till September. I sill had CFS realy bad after work or if I did to much untill October into November,  The CFS can still be a problem even now in December but I seem to have it in hand. I am and was fit and had no health problems before Covid-19, this is a monster so be carefull it can realy ruin your year, it has mine!

Secret_squirrel replied to 60kg lean keen climbing machine | 3 years ago
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CFS = Cronic Fatigue Syndrome ?

60kg lean keen ... replied to Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago

CFS = Cronic fatigue Syndrome - SOB = Shortness of Breath - EIT = Exercise Induced Tachycardia - GIS = Getational intestinal sytomptoms, these are some acronyms that are used around long C-19 Sorry if I used them and did not explain what they mean, apologies for that.

mdavidford replied to 60kg lean keen climbing machine | 3 years ago

Presumably you meant gastro-intestinal symptoms, unless this is something specific to pregnant women?

60kg lean keen ... replied to mdavidford | 3 years ago

yep, ha ha - My dislexia bites again, even when I re read to check I still get it wrong, it is proper wierid but I am now 48 years of age and I just have become used to it including all that know Me - work with me!  Sometimes it can be a bit worrying as I think it is evidence of a written fruedian slip - so what this one can mean is behond Me as I do not intend to re start a family any time soon, please NO I have two tenagers at home, which in these 2020 times is a vision from Edvard Munch The Screem!!!!

David9694 | 3 years ago

I'd recommend everyone stops by and reads this article. My wife and I have been living a much simplified version our over fifty lives since "it" all began. 

I had a chest infection nearly 20 years ago. What I remember is the feeling of taking half a breath and your lungs feeling like they're full. That is frightening. 
Several days of chest gurgles and wheezes and I was bringing up horrid green sputum for ages. I don't remember being especially feverish, but it's been a long time now. 

I've recounted this little story a few times for the 'benefit' of the "it's no worse than flu" / "the cure is worse than the illness" brigade, who are content, for example, to see the NHS once again pick up the pieces post-Christmas, having battled it all year.

See what a bad dose of COVID does for your precious bloody freedoms.

I'm near the back of the queue for the vaccine - tell me where and when it is and I'll be there.

ktache replied to David9694 | 3 years ago
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There is a reason that numbers are rising, and it's not to do with a ny more transmissible mutant strain.  There are some who do not take it seriously and indeed for them it may not be...

Reading is heading for tier 3 shortly, and from what I have seen when out and about and trying to get to work on the train, it's no real suprise.

I am glad that some of the recommendations for the mega spreading event over Christmas are being reconsidered, but the seeds of ideas have been brewing in merry makers for a while now and will not be easy to change.

It is a disease where a few selfish individuals can have a massive effect on everyone.

I will be a lot less fearful about it when my better half starts on the vaccine course, as it's for her that most of my concerns are for, but the debilitating effect of even a mild dose of Covid let alone the long version, would have on my cycling, it being my means of transport to work and general getting about, do worry me.

DaxPlusPlus | 3 years ago

In case anyone wonders what sort of data is out there, I've found this via Dylan Johnson: - and it underlines some of the issues associated with this virus. Conclusion: More than 1 in 3 previously healthy college athletes (average age 19) recovering from COVID-19 infection showed imaging features of a resolving pericardial (heart) inflammation" But fortunately: "Although subtle changes in myocardial structure and function were identified, no athlete showed specific imaging features to suggest an ongoing myocarditis. Further studies are needed to understand the clinical implications and long-term evolution of these abnormalities in uncomplicated COVID-19." 

watlina | 3 years ago

I had it in the first wave as well (kids at a school with a ski trip to northern Italy). Took the wind right out my sails. It's been a slog to get back to a decent level. 7500 miles last year, it will be a bit less than 6000 this year. Strava Fitness in the 90's last summer, it fell to 35 after Covid and only got it in to the 60's this summer Just had another bout of feeling rough so barely touched the bike for a couple of weeks. 

andystow | 3 years ago
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I guess I got lucky when I got it at the beginning of October. I never got any real respiratory symptoms, just a low fever, body aches, loss of senses of taste and smell, general tiredness. Because I wasn't coughing much, I didn't even give it to my wife.

I was off the bike for just eleven days, but took it really easy at first. I was back up to what felt like full fitness about a month after symptoms started.

wtjs | 3 years ago

I admit I initially thought this was just the ME/ CFS nutters looking for something else to say they have. That's just another way of saying that I am lucky enough to have never suffered from anything like this. The evidence is that this is genuine, which is another reason why I'm taking all reasonable steps to avoid Covid. Roll on the vaccine- I'll take the risk!

TheBillder replied to wtjs | 3 years ago

CFS is real, this is another facet to it. Now we all know about covid 19 and lots of people are suffering, the world is starting to realise that illnesses can cause debilitating symptoms after apparent recovery.

A friend of mine had CFS for two years and could barely function. Eventually traced to a parasite she'd been infected with in Ethiopia a decade before and sorted out with intravenous antibiotics. Not a "nutter" at all. You have indeed been lucky.

Secret_squirrel replied to wtjs | 3 years ago
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Bear in mind that the intensity of study and concentration of occurences of this virus is probably un-precedented in the last century, which means that things that would otherwise be dismissed as co-incidences are now bubbling to the surface.

I have no evidence but strongly suspect that many of the ME / CFS type illnesses out there are likely tied to other virus's such as Flu and "normal" Colds that otherwise go unremarked as they are part of the background of a normal life.   Its potentially a classic case of the Frog in saucepan.   I rather suspect that some of ME / CFS is a classic case of scientific myopeia.

Also dont underestimate the influence of the gutter press through a constant background of "malingering scrounger" stories.

Jimmy Ray Will replied to Secret_squirrel | 3 years ago

I agree with this sentiment, and I'm hoping this could be a really positive thing for wider ME / CFS sufferers as the long term effect of a virus is studied in a way that hasn't been done before

I had a nasty dose of CFS about ten years ago. Me and the  other half picked up a nasty old cold virus when a little run down (about 12 months after having our first child), and it wiped us both out. I tried to push the recovery, and it broke me. It was the best part of 8 months before I could realistically start looking to rebuild any fitness. 

The best bit of advice I got when in the pits of all this was from a doctor friend who told me to stop thinking about the day to day, instead focus on the fact that you will eventually get better and in a years time this will merely be an unpleasant memory. The body had to do what it had to do... which it did. 


Kelmon replied to wtjs | 3 years ago

Kindly rethink the "ME/CFS nutters" remark. I was fit (kinda) and healthy until just under 10 years ago when I picked up flu (not something I'd previously suffered from) and it wiped me out. A couple of weeks later and the cough, snot and muscle aches are gone but I'm still left with the feeling that someone's pulled out my batteries and I have no clarity of thought. After about 4 months, however, I'm feeling normal again and all is well. Since then, however, I've had a relapse about once every year. Medical science has diagnosed this as ME/CFS, which basically means there's nothing they can do and I have to put my life on-hold for however long it takes for the symptoms to lift. I've met several other sufferers and I'm the only one I know who sees symptoms disappear completely for periods or still works, which has made me question if I've really got ME/CFS (medical science is apparently confident in this). So it's great that I can be normal for some of the time, with the record currently being 18-months. But it is so dispiriting when it comes back. Last year I gave up my beloved badminton, a sport I've played since I could hold a racquet, because I kept losing my fitness and timing, and I'd go months after a relapse playing crap, before finally getting back to my normal (alright - could play okay in league matches) standard.

Over the past couple of years I've gotten into cycling, something I'd not really done since my early teens when I did a paper round. This summer I was doing great (for a novice), cranking up the KMs and watching my Strava PBs coming down. At the end of August I did my first 100km, which was a fantastic day. A couple of weeks ago I relapsed again.  Right now I can barely walk around the block without feeling exhausted for days. The fitness that I'd built up over the summer is gone. At some point I expect I'll feel fine again (this can happen in the space of a few hours - it's like a fog lifting) but then I'll be back at Square 1 again. I'll start again...

There is some hope in the ME/CFS community that investigations into Long COVID will bring some benefits. There definitely seems to be a lot in common and it may help to take ME/CFS seriously. No one wants their life ruining from this. The idea that it is made up is, honestly, nuts.

lostshrimp | 3 years ago

I had it back in early in the first wave. I couldn't go near the bike for 4 weeks (couldn't get out of bed for the first week) Another 4 weeks of training that was hard to get going again (FTP dropped from 300w in Feb to 140 in April) I didn't really get riding again normally until May.

Now it could be 6 weeks off the bike, any one of 100s factors or something related to getting ill but I'm still really struggling to get back to where I was. My FTP is 240ish nearly 100w down on its peak despite better-structured training than ever before with a similar TSS to prior seasons being able to jump on the turbo before/after/during work should have really helped. 

half_wheel79 | 3 years ago

My experience after catching it in March after a trip to the states was complete debilitating fatigue for around 4-5 days, unable to even get out of bed. Short of breath even going to the bathroom, then seriously fatigued for another 2-3 weeks before able to get back on the bike. Long term I'm noticing regular joint pain even when I've not been on the bike. 

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