How to Maintain Cycling Fitness When You Can’t Ride
There comes a point in every cyclist’s life when they’re unable to ride. Maybe it’s for a few days, maybe it’s for a few weeks or even a few months. No one wants to take time off the bike, but sadly, it happens. When it does, it’s easy to panic that your hard-earned fitness is going to disappear overnight. But while your fitness may drop slightly, there are plenty of ways that you can maintain the gains you’ve made on the bike, so that when you can start riding again, you’re back to full strength quickly.
There are three main categories that could be keeping you from riding: you’re sick or injured to the point where training of any type isn’t advisable, you’re injured for cycling but still mobile or able to build fitness in other ways, or you’re simply not around your bike for a while due to a vacation or a work trip.
Here, we spoke to a few experts to get tips for each scenario so you can learn how to maintain your cycling fitness no matter why you can’t ride. Plus, we got advice on what not to do!
How to Maintain Fitness When an Illness or Serious Injury Means You Can’t Ride at All
➥ Start With Time Off
Before you start panicking about maintaining fitness, assess your situation. If you’re sick or injured, often, the best thing to do for your fitness is to press pause. Former pro cyclist and certified road cycling coach, Jakob Novak of ProCyclingCoaching.com says that a few days off is going to be a lot more beneficial than trying to eke out any training possible.
You’re better off using those training hours for extra sleep, improved nutrition, or gentle stretching—your body will recover faster as a result. “I see people try to push through illness or injury all the time instead of just taking a few days off, and they often end up hurting their fitness for weeks as a result,” Novak says. “If they had just taken a few days off right away, they would have recovered much faster.”
➥ Check With an Expert
Of course, we know that every injury and recovery period will be different. Because of that, if you’re off the bike due to a physical limitation that’s more serious than a common cold or a minor muscle tweak, talk with an expert.
Both Novak and mountain biker and physiotherapist, Amanda Sin recommend seeking guidance from a medical professional before doing any kind of training during illness or during/after injury. Every injury will have different limitations and healing timelines, and to maximise your fitness gains while minimising risk, working with an expert is your best bet.
➥ See It as an Opportunity
Putting a pause on riding means you can focus on things like sleep or creating a mindfulness or relaxation practice, Sin says. This plays into the “whole ecosystem for healing, which is really important,” she explains.
You can also use this time to do things like cleaning and tuning your bike, working on learning how to change a flat quickly, cleaning out your gear closet, and finally getting rid of those water bottles that have been collecting mold in the back of your van. This sets you up for your triumphant return when the time is right.
➥ Do Exercises Your Doc Recommends
The fastest way to get back on the bike and come back from injury stronger than ever? Listen to your doctor and religiously do the physical therapy exercises that they recommend (no more, no less). “The sooner you get in to see a physical therapist and figure out what’s going on, the better,” says Sin. “Catching an injury early can mean a faster recovery—don’t just push through pain and hope it goes away.”
What to Do When an Injury or Physiological Limitation Stops Your Cycling, But Not Other Activity
➥ Get Some Sleep
As mentioned above, when you’re not able to train on the bike, you can use that time to make huge gains in your health and fitness by dialling in other important parts of your life.
If you’re someone who’s not getting the requisite seven to nine hours of sleep every night, use the newfound hours previously spent training to catch up. Kelly Starrett, physiotherapist and co-author of Built to Move, says that sleep is often the biggest factor missing on a training schedule, especially for serious endurance athletes who often sacrifice zzzs in favour of doing zone 2 rides. Sleep is where much of the recovery process happens, so if you want to get back on the bike faster, sleep is the best medicine.
➥ Focus on the Strength You Can Improve
If you’re recovering from an injury like an ACL tear, you’re going to be limited in terms of movement, but you may still be able to keep your fitness by working on your weak points. Leg-based injuries offer a great opportunity to shift focus to your core and upper body, says Sin.
“You can focus on the strength training and mobility that works for you right now, so that you’re maintaining that aspect of your fitness,” she says. A strong core, arms, and shoulders can improve your cycling immensely when you do get back on the bike, so focus on strengthening those areas rather than lamenting what you can’t do.
➥ Walk More
Starrett says that often, cyclists are actually not walking nearly enough from a health and longevity standpoint. Use this time to fix that! If you’re able to walk while in recovery from an injury or while dealing with a body limitation (like pregnancy, making it tough to reach the handlebars!), aiming for 8,000 to 12,000 steps per day is a great goal—and it will help you maintain that bike fitness so when you’re ready to start pedalling, you’ll be back to your old paces in no time.
➥ Use the Indoor Trainer—Cautiously
There are some injuries like hand/wrist, collarbone, and even concussions where the indoor trainer may be an option for you, if used carefully and cautiously. “An indoor trainer is a controllable way to maintain bike fitness when you can’t—or shouldn’t—ride outside,” says Sin. “Start really slow and easy though, focusing on just spinning to get some blood flowing. Make sure that you can balance easily, that it’s comfortable and that you’re not over-compensating anywhere.”
She notes that things like a sprained wrist may cause you to rely heavily on the other side of your body for balance, which can lead to more problems. So if you can’t balance and feel as though you’re overcompensating, skip the bike in favour of walking. You could also do lower-body strength work, even if it’s bodyweight work because you can’t hold a weight.
How to Stay Fit When Work or Life Keeps You Off the Bike
➥ Plan Ahead
Assuming you have a training schedule of some type, you have—or should have!—rest weeks built in every three to five weeks. Novak likes his athletes to note upcoming vacations, work trips or times of the year where it’s too busy to get in big hours on the bike, and he tries to make those times correspond with rest weeks. That way, you’re not missing your biggest weeks of training, and you’re better able to fully enjoy vacation or focus on work. You can do the same by shuffling around your schedule to work with your time off.
➥ Up Your Strength Training
Novak is a huge fan of strength training for cyclists, and whether you’re in a hotel at Disneyland with the family or stuck in a conference centre for a week-long meeting, you can make strength gains happen.
A simple set of planks, wall sits, and squats (with or without weights) can lead to big gains on the bike—and can be done in your hotel room if there’s no gym access available. He also is a fan of yoga to work on both strength and flexibility.
➥ Hike or Run
If you’re unable to ride simply due to a lack of a bike, hiking or running are great alternatives for maintaining fitness on a temporary basis, says Novak. But don’t start running for an hour if you haven’t been on a run since doing the mile in gym class back in high school! Start with brisk walking, run/walk intervals, or hiking uphill if you’re not a regular runner already.