Coach Hughes: Cycling & Coronavirus (COVID 19) Staying Fit
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How to slow the loss of cycling fitness & how to regain bicycling fitness during the coronavirus (COVID 19)

The more years you've been riding the less fitness you'll lose and the faster you'll regain it.

by Coach John Hughes
May 1, 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 at least 95% of the US population has been asked to stay home, which includes either working from home or — unfortunately — furlough or layoff. Many other countries have also issued stay-at-home orders and some have restricted or banned recreational cycling. As of this writing some states are lifting stay-at-home orders. Colorado, where I live, is changing from stay-at-home to safer-at-home. Most Americans are still sufficiently concerned that we're staying at home even if the order to do so has been lifted.

A fundamental principle of training is use it or lose it. Staying at home often means less exercise. What to do?

Exercise is one way we retain our sanity at times like this and in an earlier column I wrote about How much & how hard should you train during the coronavirus (COVID 19) The take-away message is exercise less and the key guidelines are:

  1. Exercise for health, not fitness.
  2. Exercise for maintenance, not improvement.
  3. Total exercise time should be less.
  4. Total time doing intensity should be less.
  5. Don't exercise to exhaustion.

But if you do less, aren't you losing fitness? Yes, but you lose different kinds of fitness at different rates. This column describes:

  • How you lose different types of fitness.
  • What you can do now to slow these losses.
  • What you should do to regain fitness.
Physiology of less training
Considerable research has been done on what happens if an athlete completely stops exercising because of illness, injury or other reasons. You have continued to exercise — just less — and so you are losing fitness more slowly.

Residual fitness How many years you've been riding is the biggest factor in how slowly you lose fitness and how rapidly you can recover the lost fitness. This relates to my concept of Athletic Maturity and the following column explains how to improve your Athletic Maturity.

VO2 max is your body's capacity to take in and use oxygen. It begins to decline at about day 10 of no training and continues to decrease over time. In about two to four weeks of no training significant reductions in VO2 max begin to occur. This immediate decline is related to a decreased cardiac output and decreased blood volume.

Speed and high intensity workouts depend on your VO2 max. As this declines your capacity to transport oxygen makes it hard to recover and continue with hard intervals. The loss of fast twitch muscles also reduces your how hard you can ride.

Cardiorespiratory fitness is lost a little more slowly. Within about four to eight weeks of no training your body's capacity to move blood to your muscles decreases. This happens in part because your blood volume decreases. The size of your heart muscle decreases and because it isn't as strong it can't pump as much blood per stroke. Your max heart rate actually increases. Because your heart can't pump as much blood at submaximal intensities your heart rate is higher for a given workload.

Endurance and aerobic capacity. At about 10 days you slowly start to lose endurance. At about 14 days the loss of endurance accelerates because of the decrease in mitochondrial density and enzyme activity in your slow twitch fibers. Because you can't exercise as hard aerobic exercise feels easier, especially if you have a long history of cycling.

Metabolism and muscle function are significantly impacted. For a given workload you are burning more carbs and less fat for energy. Muscle glycogen levels also drop, leaving less in the tank to draw from. Your lactate threshold goes down because lactate accumulates quicker and at a lower intensity (loss of buffering capacity).

Your endurance decreases because of these declines in cardiorespiratory, metabolism and muscle function.

Muscle strength and max power losses are very limited in the first two weeks. Even though your maximum strength and power are almost as great, you lose muscular endurance, i.e., you can't apply a force repeatedly for many minutes or hours of continuous motion. Muscle mass and the number of Type II fast twitch muscle fibers decreases. Fast twitch muscles provide power and slow twitch muscles provide endurance. (Fast twitch and slow twitch are the rates at which the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)

Loss of skills. There's good news here. Once a skill is learned, it is never forgotten, especially if it is well learned.

To sum up:

  • Rates of decline depends on how many years you've been cycling and how fit you were before you cut back on your exercise.
  • Power and capacity to ride hard starts to decrease first.
  • Endurance doesn't decrease as fast.
  • Muscle strength decreases slowly.
How to slow these losses
How does this fit with the guidelines for training during the coronavirus (COVID 19) , which recommend less total exercise and less intense exercise? The reasoning underlying the guidelines is that your exercise should not in any way compromise your immune system. Fortunately, maintenance of fitness requires less exercise than the amount and intensity of exercise you need to do to increase fitness.

An in-depth research paper concludes that near daily “Acute exercise (moderate-to-vigorous intensity, less than 60 min) . . . enhances immune defense activity and metabolic health.” The paper continues, “In contrast, high exercise training workloads, competition events, and the associated physiological, metabolic, and psychological stress . . . can cause transient immune dysfunction by decreasing immune cell metabolic capacity.“ (The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system.)

VO2 max. “The cardiovascular system, responsible for the rate of oxygen delivery, is thought to be responsible for 70 to 85 percent of the limitation of VO2max. We typically see increases in VO2 max associated with large volumes of training at low intensities (55 to 65 percent of LT power) over long periods of time. Furthermore, training at very high intensities (110 to 135 percent of LT power) for short intervals (1 to 5 minutes) also improves maximal aerobic power.” (How to Improve your VO2 Max) Unless you're a competitor in peak condition a modest decline in your VO2 max isn't much of a problem and you can mitigate this with endurance riding.

Intensity. Whether you are a health and fitness rider, a competitor or somewhere in between you're losing power, which means you can't ride as fast and the hills seem harder. To mitigate this you should be doing some harder riding. Harder riding ranges from riding a hilly route to intense intervals. You can still ride hard, just do less. If your regular 50-mile ride includes 2,000 feet of climbing, then do 50-milers with 1,000 feet of climbing. Or, if you ride your regular route at 15 mph slow down to 13 mph.

If you do intervals, back off on the number and or intensity. If a hard workout for you is 30 cumulative minutes around your anaerobic threshold (AT), then cut back to 20 total minutes around your AT. Or you could continue to ride hard for 30 minutes but stay below your AT.

Endurance. By continuing endurance rides you can slow down the decrease in stroke volume, how much blood your heart pumps per beat. Endurance riding also helps to maintain the metabolism in your slow-twitch muscles fibers that burns fat and spares muscle glycogen stores. More on the benefits of endurance riding.

You can reduce endurance riding in several different ways:

  1. Shorter rides, e.g., a 40-mile weekend ride instead of a 50-miler.
  2. Less frequent riding. A rule of thumb is that three days of riding are the minimum to maintain fitness.
  3. Reduce your total weekly volume, the product of numbers one and two.

I've written a column with 11 endurance workouts you can do on the trainer.

Key points

  1. Reduce your exercise. The goal is to stay healthy so you don't lose a lot of fitness.
  2. Primarily reduce (not eliminate) intensity. Either reduce the amount of intensity workouts or don't go quite as hard.
  3. Reduce endurance less.
Regaining fitness
While staying at home your long rides are probably shorter, your weekly miles are probably less and you're probably doing less intense riding. If you try to remedy all three at the same time you're risking overtraining and injury. The way to come back is to set priorities.

Power and ability to ride hard.This is the type of fitness you've been losing most rapidly so this is the priority for regaining fitness. Improving your capacity to ride faster and climb better means doing some form of intensity training. This does not mean “no pain, no gain.” If you've been riding at an endurance pace where you could very easily carry on a conversation if you were riding with a friend just pick up the pace a little to a tempo pace so you can still talk comfortably but can't whistle. If you've been riding at a tempo pace then speed up a little more so you can still talk in short phrases but not full sentences.

As you increase your intensity at the same time decrease your total volume to reduce the risk of overtraining and getting sick or injured. If you've been riding five hours a week cut back to four hours with some of the time at increased intensity. How much is “some of the time”? Enough that you feel tired but could do a bit more. Don't ride to exhaustion.

Here's more information on why increasing intensity is good for all road cyclists.

As you increase the intensity also increase the quality of your recovery. Here's how to improve your recovery.

Endurance. After you've increased your speed and climbing to whatever level you want to ride at, then build back up your endurance. As you ramp back up your endurance dial back the quantity of the intensity you've been doing. Again, you're avoiding overtraining. At this point you're maintaining your speed and power, not trying to improve them. You can increase your endurance by riding more miles per week or doing more miles on your long rides. Don't try to do both at the same time. Whether you should increase the total volume or the duration of your long rides depends on the kind of riding you enjoy. If you're an endurance rider and enjoy metric centuries and longer then increase the length of your big rides without increasing the duration of your other rides. On the other hand if you're a recreational rider and enjoy being out on your bike but don't aspire to longer rides, then increase the duration of several of your weekly rides. Here's a column on how to do endurance training correctly.

Be patient. Gradually increase your workouts so you get fitter week by week. You don't want to fall into overtraining, from which it'll take many weeks to recover. Two rules of thumb:

  1. Week to week. You can probably safely increase your weekly volume by 5-15%. If you are a relatively new rider or have reduced your volume a lot (more than about 25%) then 5% is safer. If you have years in the saddle and have cut back your volume less, then 15% is probably okay.
  2. Month to month. You can probably safely increase your monthly volume by 10-25%. The same principles apply. If you're a relatively new roadie then ramp up at the slower rate. If you've worn out many pairs of shorts then you could ramp up faster.
Listen to your mind and body. These are two best ways to tell if you're doing too much:
  1. Performance decreases. You've already built back up to your normal riding speeds but then can't sustain these speeds. We all have an off day; however, if this persists for several days than you've been asking your body to do too much. This is difficult. Because you're not riding as well it's natural to think you need to train more / harder. It's counter intuitive to train less; however, this is the right way to go.
  2. Motivation decreases. Because you've been riding less while staying at home you'll be excited to get back on the bike. If you stay excited that's terrific. Some days you may get up and not want to ride. If this becomes a pattern then you've probably been doing too much.

To sum up:

  1. Work first on speed / power at your personal level.
  2. Work second on the kind of endurance you enjoy: longer rides or more riding in general.
  3. As you increase the intensity reduce your total riding. As you increase your endurance riding then cut back (but don't stop) you're harder workouts.
  4. Recover more and better.
  5. Build back up slowly to reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.
  6. Pay attention to negative changes in your performance and mood.

Stay safe and have fun!

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

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