How to reclaim fitness after an illness

It may seem counterintuitive to racers, but slow and steady wins the race when it comes to illness recovery.

My two-year-old daughter shares everything with me, from finger paintings to flu bugs. Her latest gift was the latter, and I was off the bike for more than 10 days as I recovered. As you might expect, when it came time to hop back on the bike, my legs were like jelly, and I felt like I’d lost all of the fitness I’d worked so hard to build over the last year.

If you’ve been in that boat, you know how frustrating it can be to watch your hard work slip away due to illness. So how do you get that fitness back? I asked VeloNews’s resident coach, Trevor Connor, for some tips on what to do after an illness stops you in your tracks.

1) Don’t panic

You probably haven’t lost as much fitness as you think. Yes, you feel pretty lousy, but as long as you play your cards right, you can turn it around quickly. You can go about four days without touching a bike before you lose any fitness. Much of that will be top-end fitness — your peak-season strength that will win you the sprint — but your base will still be largely okay. The rest might have actually done you some good.

Once you hit the two-week mark, you’ll start to see a drop in your base fitness too. That’s the fitness you worked really hard to build up, and you’re watching it fly out the window. But don’t panic. A strategic plan should get you back to form quickly.

2) Don’t rush it

You’ll feel the urge to get right back into training the second you feel better, but you may just be hurting yourself more in the process. Your body is still recovering from the strain of fighting your illness, so give it a chance to do its job to get you well. Once you feel like you’re over your illness, wait another day or two before getting back on the bike and restarting your training.

“At its worst, [rushing back into training] extends the bug or makes you sicker,” Says Connor. “At its best, the athlete ends up doing what I call in-between training. They are too sick to train 100 percent, so they do low-quality workouts that are a little shorter and easier than what they’d normally do. The end result is they don’t get a good workout that will provide training adaptations, but they also don’t get good recovery that helps them fight the sickness.”

While you’re off the bike, kick your feet up. Get real rest. The temptation to cross-train or do some house projects will appeal to your antsy nature, but fight that urge. It’s to your benefit to pop in a movie, get comfy on the couch, and let your body recover.

3) Start slow and small

Your reentry into training will vary depending on how long you’ve been off the bike. If you missed a week or less of training, then some short, easy rides (think 1.5 hours or less) should help you get back into form. Once you start feeling like the cyclist you used to be, you can pick up the intensity. Just be sure to ease into it. The temptation to go high-intensity will be strong because you’ll remember all that fitness you lost, but your muscles need some time to get back into the swing of things. Injuries will only prolong the agony and keep gains further at bay.

Things get a bit trickier if you’ve been sick for two weeks or longer. You’ll still need to do some short, easy rides for three to four days, but beyond that, opinions among coaches differ on what to do next. Connor says he prefers his athletes to do a week or two of base work and avoid high-intensity training. “Focus on volume and low-intensity training,” he says. “You can incorporate some interval work, but I think lower intensity threshold work and some neuromuscular training, including less than 10-second sprints, is best. I’d avoid really fatiguing VO2 max-type work.”

The golden rule seems clear: Do the opposite of what your brain is urging you to do, which is to rush back into it to reclaim your fitness as quickly as possible. It may seem counterintuitive to racers, but slow and steady wins the race when it comes to illness recovery.