I’ve ridden on sprained ankles. I rode two full seasons with a screaming case of IT band friction syndrome (ITBFS…which is preferable to IBS). And I’ve ridden with head and chest colds. I thought doing those things made me tough, but that’s the sort of crap young people think.
I seem to be in a pretty good health moment (touch wood), which feels like the right time to get some things straight in my head. What happened is that this piece showed up in the New York Times, and it helped me dispel, in my own mind, some lingering myths about riding while sick.
How many of us have had a cold of one sort or another and thought, “Maybe a good ride will blow this out?”
I have. With decidedly mixed results.
Here’s what seems to be true, most of it being common sense, except when you’re a committed cyclist and you want to ride bikes, common sense isn’t quite as compelling as it might be in other scenarios. If you’ve got a cold, you can ride your bike, unless it’s a chest cold, in which case don’t. Just don’t. If it’s a bad head cold, also don’t. If it’s any kind of minor head cold, back off, go slow, take it easy.
Viruses are NOT combatted by taxing your system. They thrive on your fatigue. They love you dehydrated.
Once you’re starting to feel better, also don’t go out and thrash yourself. It’s a great way to go backwards, to relapse. Gently, gently go about your business. Shorter rides. Less intensity. Until you’re solid.
Sickness is a lot like an injury. You might be able to ride on, but the odds are you’re doing yourself more damage. The smarter play is to get your body right before pushing forward. Patience is, at least for me, the most difficult virtue to find. I suffer a lot from wanting-what-I-want-when-I-want-it, but health is a long game, not a short one.
Injury illness…these are all temporary. Try riding with a disease state. I have atypical Lupus, it’s a roll of the dice as to whatever I might be feeling on any given day. The thing is, the bike will always be there, ALWAYS. It’s not something I have to put away like a gone blind photographer selling their gear. I love this sport, this activity this lifestyle and love how no matter your ability or hinderance, you can still be able. It comes in so many flavors and indoors or out, one, two three or four wheeled, manual or electric, young or old, fit or in the perpetual mode of regaining fitness…..it will always be there.
The older I get, the more I am focused on training availability, which is just how often I’m ready to ride based on what the body needs. The concept helps me focus on what’s really important, which is not just today’s ride, but tomorrow’s and the next, etc.
My orthopaedic surgeon said it pretty well once after I turned my left collarbone into a work of art. If it hurts too much, back off.
After one of my more spectacular crashes (broken rib, collarbone, shoulder blade, punctured lung) I just knew I would lose all fitness and blow up like a blimp. After 2 months off the bike, didn’t happen. I emerged at my riding weight with nearly same fitness, and strength returned in just a few more weeks of smart lifting. In my experience, if you let your body heal, it will consume tons of energy and do just that.
Maybe it is age or bad living habits, but when I broke my foot and severed my rotator cuff (the second requiring surgery) and was off the bike for almost six months, I came back looking like the Michelin Man. Fortunately, even at 66 years old, that was reversible.
A number of years ago, I tried to ride through a fall cold. Just kept going, but was getting more and more fatigued. Finally, I went to my doctor and he ordered a chest x-ray: pneumonia in my right lung. My doc said antibiotics and rest. So, yeah, pushing on is sometimes the dumbest thing one can do. But doing dumb stuff is an entire story unto itself.