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How To Stay Active Even When Life Gets in the Way

No cyclist can perfectly maintain their cycling routine. Even the most regular, resilient riders face time off the bike now and then, because life simply has a way of getting in the way.

Whether you’re dealing with a busy work schedule, family obligations, injury, illness or any of life’s abundant distractions, there are seasons when it’s just difficult to stay active and keep cycling. Even vacations, which are meant to be restorative, can knock you out of healthy routines.

When that happens, inertia can set in quickly. Once you stop moving, your body likes to keep it that way. The longer you go without cycling or at least doing something active, the harder it is to get started again down the road. 

But, just how long does it take for that time off the bike to become a problem? And how do you avoid getting stuck in that inactive state? Read on to learn longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie’s tips for how to stay active, no matter the obstacles.

The Shocking Speed of Muscle Loss

When you take a few days off the bike, you might worry that you’ll quickly lose any progress. But the loss of fitness doesn’t unfold quite that quickly. A few days or even a week off here and there won’t noticeably affect you, and it may even be a good thing now and then. 

It’s when you push past 10 days that your fitness starts to wane. In fact, this is such a significant marker that Coach Darryl has dubbed it his “Rule of 11.” Once you’re off the bike for 11 days or more, you’ll see a major drop-off in your fitness level.

After you pass that threshold, you can lose as much as a third of your muscle mass. One study showed that men who had their knee in a brace for two weeks lost between 20% and 34% of their muscle mass due to inactivity. Higher losses were actually associated with younger, stronger study participants.

Not only that, but it took those same participants six weeks of riding exercise bikes to restore enough strength to exercise, and still longer to regain full strength. 

Don’t Undo Your Hard Work

This just goes to show you that even a few weeks of staying stagnant can undo months of hard work you’ve done to build your fitness level for distance riding. And that’s to say nothing of how it might affect your weight or mental health.

Once you’ve developed a strong cycling habit, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of stopping that habit for too long. It becomes integral to your well-being, so much so that it’s important to get friends or a significant other on board to support you and help you stick with it.

Instead of letting inertia take over, it’s far better for your mental and physical health to look for ways to stay active, even if you can’t do it at the same level. Think of it this way: It’s much easier to recover a fitness loss of 10% than it is to undo a deficit of 30%.

How to Maintain Some Activity When You Can’t Ride as Easily

In some cases, you’ll be waylaid enough that you can’t actually do anything active, but this is fairly uncommon. You may be recovering from an injury or traveling and unable to ride like you would at home. But, as we’ll see below, there are ways to get creative and keep moving. 

Here are just a few ways you can maintain some momentum when you can’t ride like normal:

  • One-legged pedaling: Pedaling with one leg at a time on a stationary trainer is one of the best things you can do to build leg strength, and it’s an ideal option if you have one injured leg. With your good leg, pedal at a cadence of 50 to 60 rpm short intervals.
  • Stationary training with an injured arm: If you’ve got one arm injured, it can be just as detrimental to your cycling as a bad leg, since you can no longer hold yourself up on the handlebars as well. In this situation, Darryl once rigged up a sling from his garage rafters to prop underneath his armpit and keep him upright while he held onto the bike with one hand.
  • Light training while recovering from illness: When you’re getting over a cold (or these days, a bout of COVID-19), it can be tempting to wait until you’re at full strength to start riding again. But doing a few light, easy rides with a low heart rate can help you maintain activity and shorten your time off the bike, while slowly building back up to your previous pace and distance.
  • Find a gym when traveling or in bad weather: Travel and weather are two other culprits that can disrupt your cycling routine long enough to cause inertia, but they don’t have to. Look for a gym near home or by your hotel, and you’ll always have a place to pedal indoors or while you’re on the road. 
  • Rent a bike on the road: An even better option when traveling, renting a bike lets you get out and explore an unfamiliar place. Before you catch your flight, look up bike rental options at your destination and plan ahead!
  • Do some resistance training: If you can’t ride, maybe you can still stay strong. Pushups, dumbbells, resistance bands, grip strength trainers — stock up on a few tools and tricks to help you work your muscles when all else fails. 

Whatever the cause of your disrupted cycling routine, it’s always best to find a way to get pedaling again sooner rather than later. Keeping your break to 10 days or less will radically reduce its impact, and even some light exercises can help you curb the drop-off in fitness level.

These are just a few ideas for how to keep cycling when you face some challenges. What other methods have you tried? Leave us a note in the comments below.


You can find more of Coach Darryl’s thoughts over at his website.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash