What Happens to You When You Stop Cycling?
Every now and then, life gets a little messy and routines get upended. Exercise habits might get tossed out the window. This would certainly be easy to do during the coronavirus pandemic.
You may be tempted to think that an extended break in your cycling routine isn’t a big deal. Surely, the effects of pausing cycling during a chaotic few months won’t be that bad, right? Unfortunately, your body loses its fitness all too quickly when you stop exercising. An extended break from cycling or other form of exercise can set you back physically — and mentally — so it’s important to understand the risks.
To learn more about what happens when you stop cycling, we did a little research and spoke once again with our friend and trusted advisor, Coach Darryl. Let’s look at what can happen to your mental and physical state and how quickly the effects can start to set in.
How Long Is Too Long?
If you’ve had a strong cycling routine going for a while, it doesn’t take long off the bike to start diminishing your capacity. When you’re exercising a lot, your body has adjusted in many ways, from your blood volume to your maximum oxygen consumption rate (VO2 max). When you stop exercising, your body quickly takes the hint that it doesn’t need those enhanced capacities anymore.
That’s not to say a day — or even a few days — of rest is a bad thing. Giving your body space to heal and recover is essential. But experts agree that after just a few weeks, you’ll start to feel it.
"If you’ve been off the bike for 10 consecutive days, your body has not deteriorated as much as it has for 11 days or 12 days,” says Coach Darryl. This is his “Rule of 11,” a benchmark he’s developed over decades of cycling and coaching others. In his experience, breaks shorter than 11 days don’t affect a rider’s capacity in significant ways, but any longer and they will start to notice.
If you’ve got an especially busy schedule or a trip planned — or you’re adjusting to life at home in quarantine — use that simple 11-day marker as a guideline for whether you may be out of the saddle too long.
Effects of Cycling on Your Body and What Happens When You Stop
Physical inactivity can negatively affect your body in myriad ways, including your strength, endurance, circulation and even your immune system. The ways these manifest will vary based on your genetics, diet and other factors. But the important fact is this: Being inactive isn’t good for your health.
Here are a few effects of what can happen when you stop cycling.
In Coach Darryl’s experience, this is the area where cyclists will feel the biggest impact. Cycling is fundamentally an endurance sport, and this is a major focus of development during training. While a runner might get a good workout with a 30-minute jog, a cyclist needs three or four times that.
Darryl uses the example of a cyclist who is used to doing 30-mile rides. After a few weeks off the bike, that rider is “going to feel like someone has their hand pressed against their forehead” 20 or 22 miles into their ride.
If you have taken a break from cycling for a while, Darryl’s advice is to do one of two things to deal with your reduced endurance. You can either do the same ride at a slower pace or cut your distance down by roughly two-thirds and keep the same pace.
After just a few weeks off the bike, your heart can’t pump as much blood as quickly, so it’s going to have to work that much harder to keep up. You can easily measure this by monitoring your heart rate.
“For the first 45 to 60 minutes that you get back on the bike for the first time after not being on the bike for at least 10 days, your heart rate is likely to be artificially high,” says Darryl. For a hill that he normally handles with a heart rate of 135 bpm, for example, he’ll take it at around 150 bpm after an extended time out of the saddle.
The good news is, this will usually bounce back after an hour on the bike or on your next ride.
Cycling is a largely aerobic exercise, but you will shift into anaerobic energy when you’re pushing especially hard, particularly on climbs. When you don’t cycle for a while, your body can’t remove lactic acid or burn oxygen as efficiently, which means you will feel the burn in your legs more quickly and wear out sooner.
If you’re short on time for long rides, Coach Darryl suggests running as a way to maintain good anaerobic activity in a shorter workout.
Muscle mass tends to last longer than endurance, and very fit athletes may not notice much change here in less than three weeks off the bike. But, although your leg strength won’t diminish as quickly as some of the other factors, it will still go down. You may have a little more trouble with those harder gears and hills than you did before. If you do need time off the bike, Coach Darryl advises that you maintain some strength training to keep your legs in shape.
Weight gain is, of course, the first thing that many people think of regarding physical inactivity. And it can definitely be a factor, for some more than others. Even Darryl, who has maintained a workout routine on the stationary trainer during quarantine, has noticed a 10-pound weight gain simply because rides on the trainer aren’t as difficult.
But more than just weight gain, you should consider the ratio of muscle to fat. During the same period, Darryl has seen his muscle mass go down by 2% while his fat has increased by 3%. When this happens, you’ll have less muscle to pull more fat up hills — an obvious recipe for harder rides.
Fight the Inertia
“A body in motion tends to want to keep in motion and a body at rest tends to want to keep at rest,” says Darryl. In other words, the longer you stay off the bike, the harder it will be to get back on. The battle to stay active is as much mental as it is physical.
So, don’t let life get in the way of your commitment to staying healthy. Quarantine is hard enough as it is, so everything you can do to keep your body and mind active is a good thing. If you’ve taken a break from cycling, why not grab a fresh leather saddle and get riding again right now?
You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.