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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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Yorkshire wallet | 6 years ago
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My immune system went to shit about a year ago when for some reason I started to get high levels of thyroid antibodies kicking about. I got everything under the sun from flu, to a cough that ended a chest infection, coughing up blood and inflammed chest cartlidge. Eyes started playing up as well with eye ulcers and blepharitis. When I got back on for a trial run in the middle of February I hit ice, wiped out and got a haematoma at the top of my thigh that took ages to go go down. Health wise, worst year of my life. 

Took me until about July this year to get any decent work done on the bike, kept having wiped out tiredness relapses even though my cardio seemed good. The one benefit of time away was my knee injury healed. I kept thinking I could work through it, do physio exercises and it would get better but it never did. I got stronger and the knee still hurt. Sometimes just stopping the activity completely is maybe the best thing but I had Strava mania and probably did myself more harm than good. 

Other than my T4 I'm just on a standard multivitamin, magnesium citrate and fish oil. The rest of it is just trying to eat healthily, or at least not eat processed stuff and things full  of sugar other than fruits. I've been through loads of other supplements but I think most of it is snake oil or 'marginal gains' and maybe only of use if you've got a really bad diet. 

zzk | 6 years ago

Good diet, beats any supplementation full stop. Sensible training, limits absolute risk. You will get ill no matter what eventually, so deal with it sensibly and take stock, reducing intensity. Many supplements are poorly absorbed and surplus to requirement if your diet is good. Food combinations are key to optimising absorption of fat soluble vitamins especially. As a doctor it always surprises me  how gullible people are to the marketing of the supplement manufacturers. Cyclists are definitely some of the worst offenders. It's like clean doping looking for marginal gains, but there are no quick fixes. Of course if you want to waste your money, then buy and take what you want. No evidence super duper, extra pure, even more expensive e.g. blue ice fermented cod liver oil, any better than super market own brand cheap stuff. Of course there will be a placebo effect and this has been proven greater the more you spend. 

mikeymustard | 6 years ago

Amazing! Dave Smith's advice is so good it's brought this article back from the dead (original comments 2 years old)!

And then everything else is just placebo. And I here you ask "where can we get this placebo?"

[with thanks to Dr Julius Hibbert of Springfield]

StraelGuy | 6 years ago
1 like

I've started taking 5,000iu vitamin D daily. As mentioned above, it's brilliant for your immune system and I find it makes my legs feel stronger when I take it, I think it has real benefits for muscles as well.

Bluebug replied to StraelGuy | 6 years ago

StraelGuy wrote:

I've started taking 5,000iu vitamin D daily. As mentioned above, it's brilliant for your immune system and I find it makes my legs feel stronger when I take it, I think it has real benefits for muscles as well.

You should really get a vitamin D test before supplementing at that level.  City Assays,  a NHS lab for a hospital in the West Midlands, do private ones by post for around £30 as you are unlikely to get your NHS GP do one for you.

The problem with vitamin D is that it is not water soluble so you can end up taking to much.  If you are healthy  normal weight adult, especially at the younger end of the age range,  who is frequently outdoors then it is unlikely you are that deficient to need to supplement with 5,000IU per day. 

In regards to taking supplements  - if you are deficient in any vitamins and minerals then yes you will get more colds and flu like illness. I have issues with iron and vitamin D for another reason so unfortuantely have ended up having to know a lot  about them.

In regards to healthly people the only supplement that has been proven to work to shorten colds is zinc.  Taking loads of vitamin C is just gives you expensive urine if you are lucky and the runs if you aren't.

BarryBianchi | 6 years ago
1 like

"Do some mental imagery training on your cornering ability.  Watch some inspiring racing videos, read some books on training."


That's my kind of burn feel.

ianguignet | 6 years ago

beer works

alansmurphy replied to ianguignet | 6 years ago

ianguignet wrote:

beer works


I use it to wash down many MTFU pills...

Vejnemojnen | 6 years ago
1 like

for sore throat, my choice is a spray with local antiseptic-analgesic combo, like tantum verde forte or septo lete


the tablets like strepsils are disgusting-gets anyone nauseous and they are incredibly pricey compared to spray formulations. Note, these sprays are only antiseptic and analgesic, they do not contain antibiotics. 


For stuffy nose, I'd only recommend some salty formula, the nasal decongestant sprays have nasty side effect of developing dependance. I don't had this issue, as I rarely used them (1once every 2-3 weeks..) But several of my buddies actually experienced this "rhinitis medicamentosa" phenomenon.

Vitamin D, 6-8thousand IU per day is a must. I had a collegaue of mine, who tested with LOW serum vit-d levels, even though she spent hours on sunlight during summer (leisure time gardening and hiking) and took 4000 IU per day during the summer.


Buying vitamin-D is cheaper than running a serum level test (250 gel caps of 4000 IU cost less than the test itself. Do not waste time with testing, just take the stuff, almost impossible to overdose on it, and has incredible benefits on the immune functions)


Vitamin-C is overrated IMHO, and can be dangerous to those who are predisposed for developing renal stones. I'd stay away from anything greater than 500mg per day.


And if illness prevails, try to rest! 4 years ago developed pericarditis due to a viral URTI, so, I do not think that chasing your physical limits while sick is a wise choice..  1

notfastenough | 9 years ago

I had big plans for my winter. Having two toddlers knocked that right on the head. Only now am I just starting to get any fitness at all back.

GerardR replied to notfastenough | 9 years ago

You've clearly not heard the saying "Accidents cause people". I sympathise, writing this from my sick bed over a sunny Easter weekend in the Antipodes.

mudfish | 9 years ago

Excellent piece, I'd not realised about the residual infection post symptoms. Good to know as I just got over 2 weeks of sniffles.
Liposomal type Vit C can aid recovery too, they say. And Blue Ice fermented codliver oil (the best stuff) can help boost immunity.
It might also be good to consider sublingual vit D3 supplementation. Betteryou (online) do a vit D3 blood test by post in cooperation with a hospital. The results come with a spray (under the tongue, best way to administer D).
Living this far from the equator even we outdoor types are well short of sunlight (thus depleted in D3) October to April or so. Apparently if the sun is less than 45 degrees then we humans dont get enough D3 from sunlight. During the summer months short sleeves and sensible exposure without sunscreen should sort it, I was tested mid last Sept and levels were good. Dont think you're going to get this from a multivit which are, sadly, mostly pretty useless.

Colin Peyresourde | 9 years ago
1 like

Thanks Dave. Good piece.

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