Coach Hughes: Cycling & Coronavirus (COVID 19) How Much Training?
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How much & how hard should you train during the coronavirus (COVID 19)?

“Don't overdo it. Be worried more about health than fitness.“

by Coach John Hughes
April 7, 2020, 2020

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging: 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process and of the book Distance Cycling. He has written 40 articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for More about Coach Hughes.
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

As of April 7, 2020 at least 95% of the residents of the United States are being urged to stay home: 316 million people in at least 42 states, 3 counties, 9 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. You can look up the list of states and each state's guidelines here.

Many other countries have also issued stay-at-home orders. France, Italy and Spain have banned recreational cycling.

I live in Colorado and our Governor Polis has issued a stay-at-home order except for necessary activities, which include recreation. He's encouraging people to continue to exercise but not in groups, e.g., playing basketball. He's suggesting spending less time outdoors and more time exercising indoors (ugh, but important!)

You enjoy cycling and know it's good for your physical and mental health. Like me you may not be able to spend as much time on the ride? Can you substitute riding hard to get those endorphins for riding long?

The training paradigm for improvement is straight-forward: you overload your cardiovascular system and muscles and this results in some breakdown, you're weaker. If you allow time for recovery then your body recuperates and you improve. This is based on the General Adaptation Syndrome developed by Hans Selye, MD. Should you continue to employ this training paradigm?

Recommendations of experts

In an article in Bicycling Dr. David Nieman advises, “I would caution cyclists to avoid long, intense rides or workouts right now until we get through all this and just to kind of keep things under control, ” Nieman says. “Don't overdo it. Be worried more about health than fitness. “ (Nieman is a health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus.) After a hard ride or race your immune system does not function as well. If you are then exposed to someone who is sick with the coronavirus, your body's defenses are down. Remember that someone may have COVID 19 and not yet developed symptoms — one of the primary reasons for social distancing.

The American College of Sports Medicine advises, “moderate-intensity physical activity is associated with better immune function. Regular physical activity can help reduce your feeling of stress and anxiety (which may of us may be feeling in the wake of he COVID-19 pandemic).” Download the ACSM's Summary Recommendations.

Four practical examples

My coaching has shifted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Coach John Hughes cycling during COVID 19

Joe normally has little time to work out and, except in the summer, rides the trainer. His typical week has included 30- to 60-minute interval workouts on Tuesday and Thursday and a 60- to 90-minute endurance ride on the weekend. Except in the summer he consistently rides just 2:00- 3:30 hours a week. During the pandemic I'm dialing back the mid-week workouts so he is doing less volume and/or less intense workouts. I.e., he's doing less than he's accustomed to doing. He still does some intervals. The intervals just aren't as long or hard as they normally would be in the spring. On the weekend he doesn't ride as long. Performance isn't just a function of how much and how hard you ride. Joe is riding less, but his riding includes technique drills. Joe works at home and is doing less intense cross-training like walking, general strength, core strength and stretching.

Mark enjoys riding 200K (125-mile) brevets (organized rides) every month with friends. The rides are cancelled. Right now he isn't motivated to train. Through research Selye learned that all stress is cumulative. Your body doesn't differentiate between training stress and the stressors of cabin fever from working at home, anxiety about the health of loved ones, worries about the finances, etc. Because stress is cumulative Mark's lack of motivation is normal. Because of the other added stressors he should be riding less than usual. Mark still wants to have enough fitness to be ready when the organized rides resume. Like Joe he's riding the trainer three times a week; however, to be fit for the brevets he needs to ride more than 3-1/2 hours a week. Unlike Joe I've dropped all the intensity from Mark's program for a couple of reasons. Mark want to be fit enough to do endurance rides so during the pandemic all of his training is endurance riding. Also, intense workouts are more stressful than endurance workouts and Mark already has enough stress in his life. Instead I'm progressively ramping up the volume of his riding. Although he's riding more because he's not doing intensity the total training stress on his body is less. All of Mark's workouts are at a brisk conversational pace. In a future column I'll describe a number of different endurance workouts you can do on the trainer.

Lisa is retired and enjoys (!) 12- and 24-hour races. We don't know if long-distance races will be held in June or later in the summer. Her training is a balancing act. We want her to be ready to race in June without training as hard as in past years. She's She’s continuing to do progressively longer rides but not to her limits. She's doing one intensity workout a week instead of two. She's spending more time working on her core strength and her flexibility. Lisa is also doing mental exercises to improve her ability to relax before events and to focus during training rides and events to get the most out of her body. Her total weekly volume is less, which is psychologically hard — she loves working out.

Jill is preparing for a hard multi-day tour. She is a professional with a full workload that she's managing from home while spending more time with her daughter who is home from school. Fortunately Jill lives in small city in the western US. It's easy for her get out of the house for long outdoor rides while practicing social distancing. She was doing two 60-minute spinning classes a week. I've changed that to a total of 60 minutes of intensity a week, which could be one 60-minute hard outdoor ride, a couple of 30-minute trainer rides, etc. Her weekly goals are X number of rides, Y hours of endurance rides on the weekend and Z total hours for the week. I'm still giving her workouts that will improve her riding but I'm ramping up the long endurance rides and total weekly volume more slowly.

  • Exercise for health, not fitness. If you can stay (relatively) healthy during the pandemic you'll be ready to ride more and have more fun after the pandemic is under control. If you contract a mild case of the COVID 19 it will be longer before you'll be back on the road.
  • Exercise for maintenance, not improvement. Improving your fitness requires asking your body to do more than it already is, which may wear down your body's defenses. Exercise less and rest more.
  • Do complementary activities.Take time to walk with your family while practicing social distancing. You could try a new activity like yoga or tai chi, both of which improve your flexibility and balance. You could start one of the programs on this website for improving your core strength and general strength.
  • Track hours, not miles. You probably keep track of how many miles you are riding. For now I suggest you think in terms the time you exercise instead of miles you ride. You probably aren't riding as much as usual and are adding complementary activities. Look at your exercise before a stay-at-home order. How many hours a week did you ride? How many hours a week in total did you exercise? Now that you're changing your exercise pattern for a while, track your exercise time and compare that to your riding time back in February and early March.
  • Total exercise time should be less. Because staying healthy is your number one exercise priority you should cut back on your total exercise time.
  • Total time doing intensity should be less. If you were already doing intensity workouts before the pandemic then continuing to do some intensity is fine. Just cut back on both how hard the intensity workouts are and how much time you spend doing intensity.
  • Don't exercise to exhaustion. When you finish a workout it's is fine to feel pleasantly tired and like you could do more but you shouldn't be exhausted.
  • Exercise your smiling muscles!

We're each an experiment of one and your experience may differ.

Coming next: Detraining — how to avoid losing too much fitness.

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