By Colin Henrys
Illness can be the scourge of the most rigorous and well-thought-out training plan, especially if it means time off the bike.
Colds and the flu are particularly common at this time of year and it can be difficult to stick to a training programme when you know you are not in full health.
But if treated correctly, you can be back in the saddle and flying back to full fitness before you know it and stay well on track for your target race or sportive.
Put simply, illness can be managed – and the risk of illness minimised – to ensure your training remains unimpeded.
So how do you manage a cold? When is it the right time to climb out of the saddle and take a break? And how do you plan your comeback?
Learn when to stop
Medical advice dictates that if an illness is above the neckline – for example, a stuffy nose or head cold – then exercise can be continued, but anything below such as a chesty cough or a virus should call a temporary halt to your training.
As a coach, however, Stephen Gallagher takes it even further, opting to err on the side of caution when it comes to managing an illness in order to give yourself the best chance of a strong recovery. Knowing when to stop is key, he says.
“Of course, for all illnesses it is best checking with a doctor but we also say it’s better to be overly-protective than pushing it slightly,” he said.
“The stage of an illness when it is just coming on – be it a cold, sore throat etc – is critical to whether it’s going to last a week to ten days, or whether you’ll be back within five.
“If you take time off you can then see how it manifests itself, and if come the second day you are better, then you can do a little bit of volume. Or it may be that you realise you’ll need another couple of days off.
“If you can feel the symptoms starting to come, then you can look ahead and write off your next session and then when it comes to the following session you might find you’re feeling much better – whereas if you had done the session then you risk making your recovery more difficult.”
If you are intent on training, you should use your time productively, Gallagher says.
Only train if necessary – use your time well
It’s easy, even when ill, to get into the saddle and push whatever exercise you can out of your body.
But exercise without purpose can be counter-productive when your body is fighting an infection – or at the very least just a waste of time that could be better spent.
Off-the-bike work (for example, core stability training) can be beneficial if you are well enough for a low-intensity session but Gallagher recommends taking advantage of the free time that being under the weather can create.
“There’s no point in doing training that is not beneficial or is sub-standard just to say you’re doing some as you’re not getting the time for recovery. However, low-impact exercises are actually quite good for your system. It’s good for endorphins.
“When you’re sick, it doesn’t have to be time wasted. That’s perhaps the opportunity to get your bike serviced, update your training programme and focusing on your diet while you have a little time to really look into it.”
Fitness will not disappear overnight
The most important thing to remember when you are off the bike with an illness, according to Gallagher, is not to panic – especially if you have built a good fitness base in the preceding months.
A strong base will stand you in good stead when you look to return and is reason for keeping your discipline and not rushing back too soon.
“A lot of how your body will respond comes down to the consistency of your previous training,” Gallagher said.
“We have had pretty much that exact question to our coaches. One guy, for example, was worried he was going to lose all of the fitness he had been building up but the fact was he had had four months of consistent training with little to no illnesses and interruptions.
“When you get back, for the first couple of days then you may feel some sort of impact while your body gets back into it and your system adapts again.
“If you have taken a couple of days off then you will return with very little impact on your fitness. If it has been a week, then maybe there will be a few days before you’re back to a strong level but then you’ll be back to a top level soon enough.
“It’s what we see on a regular basis. Riders who train regularly will take less time to recover because they have that memory in the bank to fall back on. Taking a couple of days off will have little effect on your fitness.
“By contrast, if you are someone who has been someone quite inconsistent then it can be longer to get back to your target level of fitness.”
Three steps to fitness on return
Gallagher believes in taking a three-step approach to returning from any injury or illness – frequency, duration, intensity.
First, you should build the frequency back up by returning to training, not being afraid to take a step back along the way if necessary. Then the volume of training (i.e. the number of hours in the saddle) should grow and finally intensity can be added to complete the comeback.
“If you keep those three aspects in check when you’re training, then you’re on to a winner,” he said.
“It’s very hard to set deadlines because you don’t know how somebody will react but it is always about building frequency, then building duration then adding intensity.
“If after three days back, you feel the frequency is not working then you can take a step back, but if feel like you are doing alright then you can add a little bit of volume to that and then add the intensity – by which point you are back to normal training.
“If you try and skip one of those, then you are leaving yourself open to a relapse or will slow your recovery.”
It’s every athlete’s worst nightmare. As the big event – the circle in the calendar – draws nearer, being struck down by illness.
Fortunately, an illness can at least be managed to give yourself a fighting chance of form on the day. The key? Rest, says Gallagher, and plenty of it.
“You certainly can’t rush your body,” said Gallagher. “But there are things to speed it up – more rest, better nutrition, certain vitamins and, if it’s under doctors’ advice, antibiotics.
“But, apart from that, Mother Nature will take its toll and dictate the time it takes to come back.
“We do see people who have invested quite a lot of money for a major sportive like La Marmotte or the Etape du Tour. It is an investment of time and money, so we say to these people it is best to rest as much as you can before it and do only a little training.
“It at least means you will be there in full health – maybe not full fitness, but at least you will have that full health.
“If you try and train then you are risking not only arriving without full fitness but also without full health because you’ve hindered your body’s ability to get back to full health.
“The worst case scenario if you rest up is just going there with a little less fitness – at least you will be able to participate.”
Sitting on the sofa, or lying in bed, while your beloved bike remains out of reach can be difficult – especially if you have little to distract you from your illness.
But, as we’ve already alluded to, discipline is the best way of giving your body a chance to recover properly.
Gallagher’s advice, therefore, is to always concentrate on the bigger picture – look at what your rest will do for your broader targets rather than any immediate impact on your fitness.
He concluded: “Take confidence in what you have done in the past weeks and months – it doesn’t disappear overnight and it doesn’t disappear in five days.
“You might feel below-par in the first instance but if you use the proper steps to build up your training again then the fitness you had will come back. Take confidence in that and look at the bigger picture in terms of what you are hoping to achieve.
“If you have a coach then listen to them. They can offer impartial advice without the motivational constraint of wanting to immediately get back on the bike. While you will want to keep training, they can advise you without that attachment – use that hunger instead to see you through a period of rest and the training to follow.”