Thursday, August 25, 2016

Time Off the Bike: What's Your Damage?



As an optimist, I find it alarmingly easy to get used to a good thing. To embrace it as the default, even if deep down I know it is the exception - that precariously balanced, delicate state of affairs, where fortune chances its smile upon me. This goes for everything: health, domestic contentment, even cycling fitness. The warm summer breeze in my face, I enjoyed my spins up the mountains this summer all too well - conveniently forgetting that the stamina and climbing ability responsible for this enjoyment were hard earned - a product of months and months of putting in miles and pushing my limits.

But it doesn't take much to shake the illusion. 4 weeks off the roadbike, to be precise. Although I tried to be active in other ways, those weeks did their damage. I could tell by the way I felt as soon as I clipped in and pushed off, that we wouldn't just be able to pick up where we left off.

So what's the damage from 4 weeks off the bike? I suspected the first thing to go would be my speed and power to accelerate, as that is my usual pattern. But surprisingly, this time around that remained the most intact. Quick bursts on flats - I could do them, it seemed, just the same as before.

On the other hand, my stamina - which I usually have extra reserves off - was utterly gone. Only 4 miles in, I pretty much felt as if I was done and had to convince myself to keep pedaling.

And then - oh dear god - the climbing began. A fairly innocent hill upon which my bike had not known the small ring all summer, suddenly required my lowest gear ratios. Wow. Not good at all.

By mile 10 I felt utterly spent. I was also more than a little upset that my climbing could go to pot so quickly. But reality demanded to be faced, and I wasn't going to improve by cutting my ride short and sulking on the sofa.

To cheer myself up, I tried a burst of acceleration again on the flat. 15mph to 25mph - boom, still got it! Strange, how that was possible, while eking out each additional mile, even at a reasonable pace, took all of my willpower. And climbing felt as if I'd tied a bag of rocks to the back of my saddle.

I rode a whopping grand total of 23 miles last night. And contemplated after, whether I'd be fit for Lap of the Lough this coming Sunday - a  century ride I'd signed up for at a time when the event looked "easy" ...and for which I now had 3 more days to train. I decided the logical answer was, probably not!

Then this morning, I woke up, got back on the bike, and rode 50 miles. I am still shockingly weak on the climbs. And my average speed is not great as a result. But it seems I am getting my stamina back at least, and that's half the battle.

What is it like for you, when you try to regain your strength after time off the bike? Is it easy come/ easy go, or a slow process in both directions? Are there specific aspects of cycling fitness that atrophy first and others that are more resistant? I've been off the bike before, but this time around the "comeback" is playing out differently from my usual pattern and it's made me curious about others' experiences.


45 comments:

  1. LT band swelling kept off bike for months!

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  2. I had eight months off with a couple of injuries - the climbing absolutely has gone, but burst acceleration is still ok, as you found. The stamina came back quite fast - six week into the return, I did a metric century substantially more easily than I thought I could (and an imperial century a month later). The hills are still slow going, though.

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  3. Seems to me that a "burst" of speed is more basic muscle training, and "stamina" is more aerobic-influenced. I know that I can be off my running/ riding training for weeks and still have some level of strength when I return, but my aerobic capacity drops pretty quickly.

    After a serious accident where I was not doing anything physical for weeks, then months following that of absolute minimum, I was just dying to get some activity back in my life. I couldn't run 2 blocks down the road without huffing and puffing. My riding was quite a bit better right from the start, though the pace would definitely be considered "feeble".

    I definitely notice that age doesn't help improve recovery time...

    Wolf.

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  4. Just had a recent spell off the bike due to medical problems. Had a reasonable base level of fitness before the break, but on a recent 55 mile hilly ride I found the same problems of slow climbing but reasonable speed on the flats. Not planning any century rides just yet!

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  5. In the early season, usually after basically atrophying through December, i feel every ounce of weight gained over the "fat season." The only thing that seems unchanged is my form on the bike. Stamina? It takes longer to regain every year and never seems to equal that of the previous season. Speed? i've gotten much slower as the years go by, and the hills keep getting steeper. By mid season, i often find that a day or two off the bike actually refreshes, but after,say, a week, it's almost back to square one. Nowadays my fitness seems to yo-yo from day to day, (and sometimes from one minute to the next on a ride.)

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    1. As someone whose form doesn't change on the bike either, I found it interesting that - for his first 3 years of getting back into cycling at least (after a 10 year absence) - my husband alternated between an "early season" and a "late season" setup, raising his handlebars every spring, then slamming them again by summer's end.

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    2. made me think of this from back in your early days….https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovely_bicycle/4625965998/in/album-72157623980000923/

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    3. Correction: should have phrased that as "doesn't change as of 4 years ago!"

      I love those early photos of my first "roadbike" setup. The benefits of a quill stem!

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    4. How many quill stems did you go through? My experience is that some head tubes only allow for a certain amount of insertion. I'm on the other side of being grateful for the modern thing of a long fork tube which can be experimented with before the final cut….Plus, it's very easy to vary the stem length b/c all shops carry a variety.

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    5. The headtube was fairly tall on that frame, so I was able to gradually "slam" that stem... which ultimately did not help me get the fit I ended up wanting in the end, as the frame was too large.

      The way I see it, quill and threadless stems each have their benefits. And once you settle down on the measurements that work for you it all gets easier anyway.

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  6. The first thing to go for me is the cardiovascular fitness. It takes longer to recover from any strenuous climb. Of course, when I'm off the bike for an extended period, I do tend to put on weight; that might have something to do with it.

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  7. When I was in my early 40s I smashed my collarbone coming down a ski hill in an MTB race. My collarbone was five loose chunks, a gravel field and the two end pieces. The doc said twelve weeks of rest.

    Nine weeks later was the club photo, mandatory attendance they said. A short ride after and then a big brunch. I went. Put on the club regalia, put my sling back on, bike in back of car. Had intended to ride one mile, maybe. Did the ride bolt upright on the MTB, arm in sling, right hand on 'bars. After a ten mile warmup it started to feel good. I went to the front and took a pull. Shifted to 48x14 and set the pace at 28mph. It was a solid three mile pull at 28. MTB tires. Nine weeks of rest, minimal activity. When the road went uphill (very moderately) I went straight backward. Almost caught the pack and did catch a lot of stragglers before completing thirty miles. You are fine after four weeks. Just a little period of adjustment.

    As a low order possibility, and you will know better than I if this could be possible, your medical events may have left a weak link somewhere, something that is not completely healed. Your body may be sending signals to dial it back a while longer. Climbing steep hills uses every part of your body. If your body is saying take it easy, listen.

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    1. That's a pretty impressive comeback.

      You are right about the weak link. I think the climbing, especially seated, stresses the bit that has not healed yet, which explains why it is so difficult.

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    2. I've never been particularly fast and the times when I've had to be off the bike I lost the sharp edge pretty quickly, but I discovered I have some sort of low level Super-Power. Maybe everyone does.

      When I've had to be off the bike for weeks or months getting over an injury or surgery or whatever, I've found that I could still go at about 75% as long as I was comfortable. I fall off the back on about any hill and I have to let my racy friends go off without me but if I loaf along on a nice light comfy bike with a pocketful of change to buy a soda every 2 or 3 hours, I can get off the couch and go do the Club Century or whatever(and still roll in at the end before the they run out of sandwiches). As long as I don't have a "contact point" full of stitches(man that was stupid) and I feel OK, I can go out and slum around, walk a hill if necessary and still have a good time.

      Spindizzy

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  8. Unless someone is seriously racing, I cant see the big deal.I ride for the joy of riding and for cardio-vascular exercise. An artificially high level of fitness that can only be achieved and maintained with constant training doesn't appeal to me as a way to live.

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  9. I have a natural experiment to offer, though with N=1. Due to a family illness and a trip to Europe, I went from June 18 through July 20 almost entirely off the bike, except for one day (June 30) when I did a six-mile round trip on my Dutch-style commuter (flat and slow). Then for three more weeks, July 21 through August 13, the only cycling I did was short trips in Paris on the Vélib' bike share bikes, averaging 18 miles per week. During that entire eight-week period, though, I was running about 19 miles a week and hiking/walking on average another 13 miles a week.

    Well, in a fit of optimism in the spring that I would be able to ride during my trips to visit family in the US Midwest and my vacation and work trip to Northern Ireland, England, and France, I signed up for my 4th D2R2 ride. This year was just the 100K; I'm not completely crazy. I did the full 100K route in 2013, the 115K route in 2014 (Pennell and Patten nearly killed me), and then my own variation in 2015.

    After I got back to the US on August 11, I had 9 days to prepare for the ride. I did a 19-mile ride one week before, then a 17-mile ride two days later, and then 19 miles easy with my wife the Thursday before the ride. Almost all was on paved roads and there wasn't much climbing. So I didn't go into the ride completely unprepared, but compared with how I had ridden before the three previous rides, I had very little to back me up.

    In the end, it went a lot better than I had expected. I had planned several bailouts, before and after each big climb, up to the lunch spot at the Green River covered bridge, and then plotted a route back to Deerfield after that. I ended up riding the 100K route to lunch, and beat my 2013 times, sometimes substantially. I could feel that my legs were tired at that point, so I opted to switch to the Green River Tour route on the way back, which shaved off a few miles and probably 1500 feet of climbing. But I was in pretty good shape when I got back to Deerfield, a lot better off than the first time I did the ride.

    My conclusion is that running and hiking/waking kept my cycling fitness up a lot better than I had expected. The confounder is the Vélib' rides in Paris, even though they were short and slow; still, they did keep me pedaling from time to time. I'm not sure how things would have turned out without them. The fact that I was running in relatively hilly places (especially in Northern Ireland, but also northwestern Paris) probably helped too.

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    1. I walked 3-6 miles a day for the entire 4 weeks off the bike, but not at an intense pace. I also started riding my upright bike 2.5 weeks in, but only short distances. I am sure doing all this was better than no activity at all, but it was still a dramatic change of pace!

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  10. You posted a photo on Instagram with you on a bike I do not recognize, and you're wearing the lapthelough jersey, and today you represent yourself with another bike…So which bike do you ride on such a trip and why? Perhaps you can update the section on your bikes.

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    1. My husband built up a vintage Italian bike for me, and that's the bike in the instagram photo. It is not quite ready yet for long rides or proper photo display.

      My selection of bikes is in flux this summer, as both my own Seven and my DIY 650B bike are disassembled at the moment. Instead I am riding a Seven prototype and the vintage Italian build. But this is temporary. And I will write about both bikes soon.

      On a ride like the Lap of the Lough - which is 100 miles, but mostly flat (3,000 ft of elevation gain), I would normally ride something vintagey or fun. But considering how I currently feel, if I do the ride at all I will "cheat" and ride the prototype Seven, just to make things easier on myself.

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    2. Having done quite a few century rides, my experience is that distance alone means nothing without also knowing the elevation gain and weather conditions. I have done 100 miles on a cargo bike with my son on the back and we both felt great afterwards. I have done 100 miles on a carbon fiber race bike and barely finished. 3,000 feet of climbing over 100 miles should be pretty easy assuming no headwind, and going with the faster, lighter bike will certainly help!

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    3. My first 100 mile ride was on a hub geared upright bike, along the flat Danube trail in Austria (100 Miles on the Danube). It took me all day and it was wonderful.

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  11. Speed and power definitely go first for me, and stamina comes back long before they do (and I generally need to do some targeted intervals/hills to get them back, whereas stamina I just need to ride). True again this winter; I went from post-surgery where walking a half-mile slowly had me ready for a nap to my slowest NER 107k season opener by a lot but I was comfortable and happy the entire way three months later (which also included a crash on what *had* been supposed to be my first long training ride resulting in a shoulder that was then too sore to ride more than 20 miles on for a month -- it was not a great winter.)

    Climbing and top speed go together for me, mostly.

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    1. Oh gosh. Sorry to learn abut the surgery and crash, but glad you are back on the NER scene.

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  12. Well, for me it's kinda like Superman and Krptonite!

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  13. Look on the bright side - I don't think there are any significant hills or climbs on the Lap the Lough course so it will probably just be a matter of settling into a comfortable pace.

    (I took a look at the course and the start and finish are a couple of hundred metres from my old school so I might look at doing it myself next year!)

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    1. Nice, I hope you're able to make it next year!

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  14. I've been off the bike since the beginning of May due to a heart problem. Its the longest time I've spent off the bike since I learned to ride. I tried to ride down to the doctors for my regular blood test the other week, about 1/2 a mile mostly down hill. I rolled most of the way there, had to get off on the small final rise and then had to walk home. Hopefully I'll get the OK to get back on the bike next week, but the underlying heart problem is not fixed and it will be a long road to recovery.

    I'm pretty much resigned to all my cycling fitness to have gone.

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    1. Gosh, so sorry to hear this, Tim! Hope you get better soon.

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    2. Probably the worst bit was we'd booked in to see Liz Colebrook to get a new frame for Jayne, but I was too sick to go. Maybe later this year or next :)

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  15. So it sounds like you did 70-odd miles within a 24 hour period? Stay off the bike at this point. Eat. Should be good to go by Sunday!

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  16. For Sunday don't get sucked into riding too quick at the start as it's easy to do. Get in a smallish safe group (not that easy) and sit in and you will be fine. If you've just clocked 50 alone you will get round sitting in. And engage the stubborn you which I've seen up close. Oh and don't over think either. you will be fine.

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    1. ^^^^^^^^^^
      What these two anons said. Time to train is over. Time to rest and eat. If you just must get on the bike because you have somewhere to be, go gentle in smallest gears. For the event start with a long warmup. Ten miles, twenty miles, an hour. Warmup does mean some effort and getting warm. But easy gears, no strain. Spin until tired of spinning. And look for that good group. Or just the one good wheel. At any point in the ride take the good wheel. Sit back ten feet if you like but follow someone else's steady pace.

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  17. A lot of pink here lately! I like it :)

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  18. In my late 40s I was off the bike for a year due to a non-bike related injury. I was unable to do any fitness activity for 6 months after whic I began walking the treadmill in the mornings for a time equivalent to my commute. When I began riding again, my cardio was mostly there, but my muscles weren't. I had to walk hills I previously gave no thought to. After 3 months I was able to pedal the hills almost every day. After a couple more months it was business as usual. Two and three winters ago I missed two and three week periods of riding due to cold temps but mostly snow and ice, for which I walked the treadmill. Once again upon returning to the saddle, my cardio was willing, but my muscles were a little weak. But last year I fitted my old commuter with studed snow tires, challenged myself to drop my cold temperature limit back down to what it was in my 30s and rode all winter. When spring came around I felt great!

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  19. A typically don't get to ride regularly, So every time is like having been off the bike for a while and yes, the climbing is the bit that genuinely suffers. More so as I get older. My inactivity leads more to seated, slow, grinding style of climbing as opposed to the way I used to be able to attack the climbs with out of the seat abandon. I do find that I quickly adjust to out of the seat climbing as the frequency of riding gets closer together. Getting my "spin" back, which seems almost like a muscle memory thing after so many years. Also as I age I notice I can't just jump on the bike a start tearing it up as I used to, I need to get the juices flowing which typically takes 15 or 20 minutes of feeling weak, then it's like somebody turned a light switch and I feel good and can go for hours. This process is amplified by time off the bike. My personal theory is that it has something to do with my Blood sugar/metabolism, but I am not sure? - Mas

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  20. i just know the feeling. we just had a baby and am helping my wife. the sleeping is to a minimum. i m on leave and i m rarely cycling. the hills especially get longer and steeper...but i know i ll be back to my good form...after november maybe when i return to work

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    1. I feel you brother... The same goes for me but still I'm a proud dad ;). Havin a son is the best thing that ever happened to me

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  21. I think the more elite one is in whatever activity the harder to just pick up where they left off after a sustained absence. They are more highly attuned and sensitized to the smallest of differences and have the highest of expectations. I'm happily a part of that lower on the ladder group who find that 9mph sweet spot easy to catch up to after a week or two off the bike.

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  22. If I had that Seven carbon/Ti bike I can't imagine being off it for four weeks.

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  23. Not so sure it's time off the back that matters as much what caused the time off the bike. Some injuries require a lot of energy to heal.

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  24. When I bicycle I just enjoy looking down at my feet……A moment occurs when I realize that this wonderful movement is happening because of my connection to this bike…..I'm moving about space and experiencing every inch, how wonderful!….When I'm off the bike I'm sad….But getting back on it makes me happy….Hope you find your happy place, too.

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  25. This is an interesting topic. I've found that, as I get older (61 now), I feel surprisingly strong (muscle and wind) after a layoff, but I am very, very prone to "overtraining" symptoms. I recall a few months ago climbing one of our longer, local hills (~5 miles) in a 75" (fixed) gear, standing 4/5 of the distance after a rather lengthy layoff. I was surprised at how strong I felt. "Hurrah!", I said. I was fine the next day, but from day 2 I was absolutely beat; it took me 3 more days to get back to normal.

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  26. Last summer, apropos of nothing, still not sure why, I took a header. In a hospital parking lot (very handy for X-rays), at about 5km/hr. Managed to flip over the bars and then flip the bike over me (I assume, from where we both landed). Bike was scratched, basket bent (though maybe it will stop rattling now), seat torn a little. I, too, was scratched and torn a little (with a grand shaken-not-stirred headache and lovely collection of bruises, the best of which in spots I couldn't flaunt), and then off the bike until I got use of my hand and arm again (fracture at the radial head; wearing very fashionable sling; no grip strength to speak of).

    I lasted nine days. I got out my more-stable, more-upright winter bike, rested my wrist brace on the handlebar and managed 10 kilometres round the block. Hurt so much I was nearly sick, and didn't try that again for awhile. (On the "finding something positive" side, if the universe wanted to point out I was getting cocky and due for a spill, I'm glad it was gentle.)

    The thing most likely to keep me off the bike is the winter weather. I can dress for down to –20°C, but below that, I can't keep my hands warm, and we generally get about four months of those kinds of temps. not every day, necessarily, but too often. The past several months I have pretty much doubled my daily commute/ weekend ride. My husband and I are planning a cycling trip in Germany next summer, and I am a little worried that any gains I have made in terms of fitness will have disappeared by the end of our endless winter, so thinking I might have to go w my niece when she goes to the gym. Not found of gyms, but if I have someone to talk to, I should be able to stand some time on a stationery bike, no?

    Lovely to read the comments here about others' experiences and work-arounds.

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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  27. I think it worthwhile if all the comments had the age of the rider posted. Age makes a big difference in recovery from time off.

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  28. This is so timely. In early summer I had signed up for a century ride (non-competitive) that will take place in late September. I went and had surgery last week (this was not on my planning horizon back when I signed up for the ride) and the doctor's orders are to do no exercise whatsoever other than walking for 4 weeks. The century ride is 5 weeks post-surgery. . . I will have one week to "train." I have already given up on the notion of doing all 100 miles but even if I aim to do an alternative, shorter route, what's the best way to prepare over that week (if there is one)? Note that I'm not an elite athlete. ..er, actually, not an athlete at all BUT am in good fitness/shape and was capable of doing a 100km ride before surgery.

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