Cycling with a cold – Should I, shouldn’t I?

Snot Rocket CyclistMan flu has struck. Throat sore and voice hoarse, snot streams from my nose at a rate bettered only by the Falls of Niagara. Man down. Or is he? Should I cycle with a cold? A common cold, at that, not one of them posh ones. I can still cycle, right? All I need to do is turn the pedals, how hard can that be? Sure, it’s nice and toasty beneath my duvet but I’ll soon warm up out there in the wet and windy world, non? And yet I’m reluctant.

Should I cycle with a cold?

Research and doctors agree the old wives’ tale quoted below is actually a good barometer to the age old question of whether you should exercise when ill. Throat a little sore when you swallow? Talk less on the ride and get those legs pumping! Got a little sniffle and a weak cough? Get out there you wuss! Chest heavy and joints aching? Rest.

“If it’s above the neck, train. Below the neck, rest.”
Dr Google’s advice

Whilst my cold is from the neck up only, mentally I am struggling to find the strength to cycle. The looming thick black clouds may have something to do with this. My legs feel good but not so my chest. Walking up stairs I am breathless. It feels like my lungs have been removed and my ability to take deep breaths is limited to the capacity of my mouth. This is what it must be like to cycle in the oxygen free environs of space. I am Arnold Schwarzenegger struggling to breathe on Mars in Total Recall (as pictured below).

If this was the flu ‘proper’, there would be no question about what to do. Or what not to do. Rest. This strategy would get me cycling better and sooner rather than training whilst ill and dragging the illness on and on and on. Training sick or healthy, the rules are the same: focus on quality not quantity.

Yet I don’t have the flu. What’s more, Ride London and August loom. One hundred miles. Right now I’m struggling with 30. I remind myself there’s almost three months remaining, yet this does not dampen the desire to punish myself for I am stuck in a cycle of guilt and need to keep on pushing, to keep on improving. I cannot idle.

Cycling with man flu

Man Flu Definition

If it has a definition it must be true

The fact I have the so called man flu also means I have no excuse but to get out there and harden the fuck up, as quite a few of my fellow gorillas would no doubt tell me in between chest beats. Intellectually I know I should ride on feel. Do I feel like riding? No. Although this is not unusual for me when the weather is a little iffy.

Yet something gnaws away at me and I cannot quell the desire to push myself in pursuit of a better Ride London finishing time than 2013. Bah. Damn you man flu. NB: A cautionary tale for any gentlemen readers, bird flu is not the female equivalent of man flu. Trust me on that one.

“After obsessively Googling symptoms for four hours, I discovered ‘obsessively Googling symptoms’ is a symptom of hypochondria.”
Stephen Colbert, The Late Show’s new host in waiting

All of this deliberation is quite pointless when I consider the fact I do not have a choice. My inner chimp is going to drag me out onto my bicycle no matter what I think or how I feel or how sad a face I make. A short ride then, I’m thinking, a little leg loosener, a gentle spin.

Such low intensity rides are common for many a cyclist yet it is a ride I rarely encounter for I am an All Out Idiot™. The minute I clip in I will struggle in vain to reach my max heart rate. Mouth open, snot streaming across my cheeks, before you know it I’ll be panting like a dog on a hot summer day. 

The worse I feel, the harder I will push. Chances are such an eyeballs out ride will lower my immune system further and extend the number of days it takes me to recover. Damn you inner chimp. Where’s Dr Steve Peters when you need him?

Tips for riding with a cold

Man Flu indeed

Man Flu indeed. Struggling to breathe, Total Recall style

Don’t! OK, well if you meet Dr Google’s criteria above and your cold is only from the neck up, then:

  • Lower your intensity
  • Wear gloves no matter the weather, they’ll be vital for cleaning up the green stuff streaking across your cheeks
  • Look behind you when gobbing out your green stuff (seriously, the number of times other cyclists have spat on me is incredible, you filthy beasts!)
  • Wrap up nice and toasty to mimic that warm duvet feeling
  • Avoid hills
  • Cycle on your own so you are not inclined to “keep up”, or alternatively
  • Cycle in a group and stubbornly refuse to do your turn on the front. If folk complain, go to the front and spit your snot out a few times – the complaints will soon quieten.
  • Stay hydrated. It’s a scientific fact you lose up to 4 litres of liquid a minute via the nose when suffering from a cold
  • Don’t try to eat whilst on the bike when you can’t breathe through the nose. Not pretty.
  • Stay warm upon your return, drink plenty and eat well
  • Master the good ol’ snot rocket (as pictured at the top of this post, eugh!) so you don’t return home looking like you’ve been in an encounter with Slimer of Ghostbuster’s fame
  • Do not attempt said snot rocket when riding in cross winds or at the front of a group or if wearing a pollution mask
  • During the ride – complain loudly to fellow riders about your debilitating illness
  • Post ride – brag loudly to fellow riders and anybody else who will listen about the fact you rode whilst on death’s door. Yes, you are a hero.
  • Leave your HR strap at home, the only thing your heart beat will tell you is that you’re ill
  • Put your GPS in the back pocket and ride on feel. Don’t be tempted to overdo it and accept you will be slower than usual
  • Ride at your own pace, don’t let the inner chimp send you chasing after anything that moves
  • Maintain a consistent pace where possible. Snot and sprinting don’t mix too well.
  • Put the emphasis on the legs not the lungs and slip the bike down into a lower gear to grind out some 80 rpm miles
  • Ride fixed if you can, this will help you maintain a consistent pace whilst also riding a bigger gear

Did I ride with my cold?

Dr. Peter Venkman aka Bill Murray returns from a ride after cycling with a cold

Dr. Peter Venkman aka Bill Murray returns from a ride after cycling with a cold

Of course! What a hero I am! Indeed, I know you dear reader was not expecting anything less. Was it a slog? No. Did I go slower than usual? Undoubtedly, although the monster headwind didn’t help. Did I cycle for longer than I intended? Yes, I was having far too much fun! Legs ready, head not, a few miles soon convinced me otherwise. The hardest part is always leaving the house.

Did I ignore all of my tips above? Surprisingly no, my intensity was higher than I planned but I did ride on feel and at no point did I push myself too hard. Did I return home looking like I had been slimed Ghostbusters style? Sure did!

Regrets? I’ll let you know depending on how my immune system reacts and how quickly I shake off this cold, which it seems is not as bad as I first thought. Man flu indeed.


Strategies for cycling with the flu or the common cold

What about you? Rule #5 or duvet day? I’d be interested to hear if women have the same kind of meek psychological battle when suffering from bird flu feeling a little under the weather.

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23 thoughts on “Cycling with a cold – Should I, shouldn’t I?

  1. I can sort of understand your thrashing about on this topic. I will often give an activity a go (running or riding) and if I start to feel worse after a few or if my body continues to feel fatigued I will stop and call it a day. Of course, a different set of criteria applies if it’s the day of an actual event that I’ve been training for.

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    • It’s a tough one. Lose time training or go training and lose even more time recovering because you don’t let your immune system recover? Definitely ride on feel as you say.

      It takes a lot of courage to turn the bike around at the very beginning of a ride when you’re feeling rough and need to head back home defeated, your tail between the legs. Better to live to fight another day.

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  2. It’s the one rule I do try to obey. If it really is flu and not just a sniffle, I stay at home but as I rarely get flu (twice in the last forty years) it is not too big a sacrifice. Still my hard won immunity to popular diseases gained through teaching must be disappearing as I get older and more retired from the world so I shall consider your advice carefully when the time comes.

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    • I tend to avoid children and public transport which seems to keep me mostly free of germs! Definitely stay put if laid out with the flu proper.

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  3. Great post. This is a battle I’ve had with myself many times, fretting about losing hard earned form and fitness whilst nursing a cold – I might try the rule of thumb in future.

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    • Take it easy bikegypsy. A few folk at work were diagnosed with what was suspected bronchitis. A few rounds of antibiotics later and they were both down and out with some heavy cases of pneumonia. Good to hear the cycling eases things – certainly helped clear my chest on the above man flu ride.

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  4. how long does a cold last – 48 hours – my policy is that unless your olympic selection or pro team contract depends on it why would you go for a ride which is not enjoyable and risk prolonging the recovery in doing so but them dave brailsford I am not

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    • A good point, perhaps there’s a reason why my sniffles hang around for so long. I usually suffer for a week, beginning with a very familiar cycle (pun not intended). Sore throat, followed by runny nose before this all moves below the neck and the cough kicks in. Don’t think a cold has ever cleared up in a couple of days. There could be something in that Mr Brailsford, I mean Northernbike.

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  5. Defo good advice; ‘below the neck- rest’. Went out for a good blast a couple of weeks ago when I had a cough in the hope that it would improve things, made it much worse, I’d say set me back a week.

    On the other hand, I see no harm in GENTLE base training/recovery rides, no big efforts, not getting out of breath.

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  6. A very amusing post! Manflu has hit our house right now and my OH can barely leave the sofa let alone contemplate a ride…I am convinced however, it is only a cold! 😉 I have just spent nearly 4 weeks not able to ride with a chest infection. I’ve just physically had nothing to give. Some times you just have to listen to your body….although I know getting back on two wheels this weekend is going to be bloody hard going!

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    • Four weeks off the bike is tough. You come back fresher and hungrier yet your legs don’t always reply with such gusto! Take it easy back in the saddle and get the OH to drag himself from his deathbed and get the coffee on for when you return.

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  8. It’s worth Googling “influenza/adenovirus/Coxsackie virus/exercise / sudden death from myocarditis”. The rule of thumb is, if you’re producing anything discoloured, don’t do anything more aerobic than strolling round the block, or you risk damaging your heart muscle. On a less scary note, it’s pointless to challenge your immune system if you’re not fully recovered; chances are, you’ll just get ill again

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