Thankfully due to my fairly robust immune system, I’ve not had to worry about this idea too much over the past 13 years but occasionally I ponder whether I should be cycling while sick like right now with a head cold. I’m generally good at listening to my body and usually rest when I’m sick which includes abstaining from bike riding, but I’ve always wondered.
I first wrote about this subject long before the COVID pandemic and it has put another layer over this vexed topic. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be riding a bike if you suspect you have COVID-19 but if you know like me that you don’t (because I took a test yesterday which came back negative) then there are some basic rules you can follow if you have a basic head cold or similar.
With illnesses like colds, you should also be mindful of sharing your germs with your friends which is partly why I didn’t ride my bike this morning with my mates.
I read a great article published by the ABC a couple of years ago which helped satisfy my curiosity on this subject. I’ve plagiarised some of the key points for your enjoyment and education. The full article can be read here.
Do the neck check
According to sports scientist and researcher from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise at the University of Canberra David Pyne, exercise helps boost your immunity, but pushing yourself too hard can temporarily have the opposite effect. He says that when faced with a looming illness athletes use a test known as the “neck check”.
In general, if symptoms are from the neck up (like a sore throat or maybe a runny nose or a slight headache) and not too severe, moderate exercise won’t hurt you and might even be beneficial.
I also read that an easy ride will help push your white blood cells out of the lymph tissue and into circulation where they can seek out and destroy invading bacteria and viruses (sounds scary but good). It may also open your nasal passages and provide a little temporary relief from your congestion thanks to epinephrine, which is a natural decongestant.
If you feel unwell and your symptoms are more troublesome (like chest congestion, or any muscular or joint aches and pains, or a temperature), particularly below the neck, pushing on is not recommended. Professor Pyne says that exercising with major cold symptoms, particularly a fever, can prolong your illness and be dangerous. It can make you faint and, in rare cases, even cause heart damage.
Also, if you’re training in a structured way to meet certain goals, say in the lead-up to a fun run, the quality of your training counts as much as the quantity; training when you’re sick will not be quality training.
While it’s easy to fret about all your hard work being undone by a break from your exercise routine, missing a few days or a week is not going to have much impact if you’ve been exercising regularly before that, Professor Pyne says.
When can you return to riding?
Most common colds are self-limiting, with symptoms resolving after a few days or a week. Once you’ve got through that period and any aches, pain, cough or fever have passed, it’s fine to start exercising again — but Professor Pyne says it’s important to do it gradually.
“We often advise athletes to ease their way back in with light exercise on the first day, then gradually step up to full training,” he says.
Professor Pyne suggests the same applies to recreational athletes but says it’s important to monitor how you feel and don’t try to push yourself too hard to make up for the lost time.
If you feel you’re someone who tends to succumb to infections easily, you might want to be a bit more cautious.
“The thing is not to rush back and do too much too quickly,” he says.
Does riding your bike regularly help prevent illness?
Mostly, the answer is yes, says the Australian Institute of Sport and the American College of Sports Medicine.
And when you do moderate-to-vigorous exercise (e.g. brisk walking, cycling, swimming, playing a sport), there are several positive changes in your immune system, including the enhanced movement of important immune cells throughout the body.
Although these changes are temporary, each exercise session “represents a boost that reduces the risk of infection over the long term”, says Professor David Nieman, from the American College of Sports Medicine and Appalachian State University.
But beware…” An intense and/or prolonged bout of exercise can lead to a temporary impairment in the immune system,” Professor Pyne says.