People take time off the bike for a variety of reasons, but three of the principle ones are through injury, illness or simply needing a break. Aaron Strong from Steelsprings Performance Coaching shares from his expertise and personal experience about how to navigate the downtime.

Cycling is a sport that rewards consistency in training.  If you are in for the long haul, patient and put the time in, you get the results.  On a basic level this is the “magic bullet” that all my athletes are looking for, but many are unwilling or unable to commit to.  There must be an easier way, right?  The cyclist who understands this and commits to it, gets hooked on it and then has the opposite problem.  They don’t want to take any time off the bike.  Part of this is that they are addicted to the endorphins.  They are also adapted to a habit and a lifestyle choice where going for a ride is part of the daily routine.  

Having time off the bike is actually an important part of the cyclist’s year.  There are 3 main categories when I talk about having time off the bike.  

  1. Getting sick
  2. Getting injured
  3. Planned rest

Each reason to take time off is treated quite differently and there are many different levels of each.

Getting Sick

At this time of year this is quite common of course and as a coach I have some quite strict protocols I try to get my athletes to stick to.  If we’re talking about cold / flu symptoms then I recommend they take it very easy and keep any riding very short if the cold is a mild head cold, above the throat.  Keep going easy or take days off until you’re feeling better.  

If the symptoms progress to sore throat, chest, aching limbs, fevers, then complete time off.  Start back with a few days real light and easy, then commence at a very aerobic level of training.  Depending on how long away from normal training that was, depends on where you can direct your training emphasis.  I recently had two weeks off with some pretty awful proper flu symptoms, so I’ve started from scratch essentially.  For an athlete who is recovered in 3-4 days we can resume training where we left off pretty quickly.  

Aaron Strong in action at the Grassroots Trust Team Championship, photo Ed Wright / RoadCycling.co.nz

The old school way of hardening up and just training through it hasn’t had very good outcomes in my experience.  The body needs that extra energy to fight off the infection, so just chill out and let it run its course.  There has been a lot of evidence that training through serious infections may actually have the risk of damaging your heart and or lungs also.  So, I’d rather not take that risk.

My role as a coach in this period of time off the bike is to scrap the original training plan and start again.  That has to be managed on a case by case basis.

Getting Injured

Again, there are many sub-categories here.  Cycling is great in many ways because over-use injuries are pretty rare.  The main risks are from crashing and broken bones are common when that occurs.  Losing skin from a crash is also common.  As a coach and personally I have seen a huge range of injuries, from achilles strains, to knee or lower back pain, to iliac artery endofibrosis.  I even managed to rupture my spleen in a pretty mundane crash.

As a coach, any of the above is the last thing I want to see in my inbox on a Monday morning.  Instantly, goals are put aside and depending on the severity of the injury or condition, a complete rethink has to take place.  I now have to call on all my experience to firstly point the athlete in the right direction to get the best possible medical help to aid in their rehab.  

Then I have to reassure them that they will get back to where they were and beyond, but that it will take some patience and self-belief.  This is where some examples I have in my memory bank might come in handy.  For anyone facing a long period off the bike, I might draw on my own experience back in the day when that ruptured spleen kept me off the bike for about 4 months.  I had to re-start so slowly for fair of raising blood pressure causing bleeding.  

Once I got the all-clear to push it, I couldn’t.  I felt like a complete newbie on the bike and had pretty much resigned to the fact that I’d never be riding at the same level again.  6 months later I had my best finish at Tour of Southland (4th).  It turns out that I had fallen into a very common trap amongst addicted cyclists and hadn’t had any planned time off the bike for over 2 years.  This forced rest was the best thing that could have happened to me (although I wouldn’t recommend that particular approach).

The point to be taken from this experience and countless from my athletes over the years is that at your low point the mountain feels like a huge climb, but if you’re smart and patient then you have the opportunity to rebuild stronger, faster, better than before.

Planned rest

For NZ riders, whether they be fun-riders, serious age group contenders, school cycling participants, or pro athletes, there are no defined seasons.  You can find a fun ride around NZ every month of the year.  For the pros, they have to be ready for a long season in Europe or USA and yet, in recent seasons, have had to be fit in January if they wanted a NZ Road title.  The dilemma is, when to take a break.

As a coach, in a perfect world, I’d give each athlete I coach a minimum of 2 breaks from cycling each year.  Not too long, not too short.  Anything from 5-10 days completely off.  We can all benefit from this in a few ways.  Obviously, the physical self needs a period of rejuvenation, from the tough regime that being a competitive cyclist requires.  There is also a positive impact on one’s mental wellbeing.  The chance to be a “normal” human for a short period is good for the soul.  

Following a structured training program requires a lot of discipline and self-motivation.  We all need a period of time out from that in order to have the focus needed when it counts.  I’ve seen it time and time again, when people refuse to take a break 5 months out from a big goal and then fall apart in the final 3 weeks, because the ability to remain task-focused for that long is very difficult for most humans.  

When you take a break from training there is an inevitable de-training that occurs.  There are 3 main components of fitness that are impacted: cardiovascular, muscular strength and muscular endurance.  They are all impacted at different rates with inactivity.

I think this rate of detraining that occurs may surprise some people.  For instance, after only 1 week blood volume decreases anywhere from 5-12%.  That means that for any given workload on the bike your heart now has to work a little harder (increased heart rate).  There are also some inefficiencies in glycogen storage, usage and replenishment already.

By week 3 of inactivity your VO2max will have reduced by up to 15%.  There are many muscle physiology and biochemistry changes taking place at this stage which I won’t go into, but I think you get the picture.  None of this inactivity is helping you get better at cycling.

After only 1 month your muscle capillarisation will have returned to your pre-trained levels.   The longer you take off the more of all of the above happens.

So, when planning rest periods it’s important to consider your timeline.  No point taking a two week break then only having 2 weeks till your key event.  The longer the break, the longer it will take to get back into peak form.

If you feel you need to take more than a couple of weeks off the bike but don’t want to lose all your hard earned fitness then there are ways to curb the decline without getting back into a full on regimented training plan again.  Adding in 2 or 3 very short but very intense cycling workouts a week is the most specific approach. Something like 8 x 30s sprints, full gas.  That is only 4mins of hard effort per session.

Maybe it’s just the bike that needs a rest, but not your love for the endorphins.  This time off the bike could be substituted with running (be careful of injuries though and build up really gradually), hiking, swimming, rowing or working on some muscular imbalances in the gym, yoga studio or pilates class.  Most of these will reduce the detraining impact of time off the bike to varying degrees.

It is still important to have that complete rest of 5-7 days minimum, a couple of times a year though, so don’t just substitute the lack of riding with just as much cross-training immediately.

If this talk of detraining has you feeling a bit worried, then don’t fret too much.  For well trained athletes, taking even 6 months away from the sport and not doing a lot of cross-training will still have them at a higher base level than your average sedentary human.  The re-training process will be much faster for them than for someone starting from zero training history.  Personally, as a coach, I love getting hold of cyclists who were fit once upon a time.  The accelerated gains you can get out of them is remarkable and testament to the fact that you never completely lose it all.

Aaron and Toni are in charge of Steelsprings Performance Coaching. To find out more about them click here.

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