Cycling with a cold: to ride, or not to ride?

The week before last began with a little sniffle, some sneezing and what felt like a small rodent scratching at the back of my throat.

Initially, I assumed allergy, and began upping my doses of antihistamine. I nipped to the chemist for nasal spray and eye drops to supplement my Piriteze, with an optimistic jaunt.

Day two – Tuesday – and I began googling: “Pollen count”, and “differences between a cold and hayfever” – which is pretty dumb since really the differences are quite clear.

On Wednesday, I decided to keep with my ‘hafever’ story and go ahead with my planned lunch-time-turbo session – I was leading the session for some colleagues, so I couldn’t really pull out. By Wednesday afternoon I was pretty stuffed –definitely not hayfever, and a dreaded chesty cough emerged.

Tissues  - cycling with a cold

Thursday through to the following Monday were a total right-off. I DNS-ed (did not start) my Saturday race, and decided I better rest up to avoid having to do the same this weekend. That’s 5 days off the bike, and it was so unbelievably frustrating.

To ride with a cold, or not?

Internet forums, webzines and blogs are full of answers to the question: “should I exercise/ride with a cold?” – and that fact implies to me that it’s a question a lot of people ask.

Opinions on riding with a cold are divided – but there is one theory that is quoted more often than any other: Symptoms above the neck and it’s fine, in fact quite good for you, to ride your bike or exercise. Anything below the neck – eg a chesty cough that could become an infection, and you should rest.

Your experiences might vary – but I’ve always found this approach to work. A bit of a sniffle, and getting my heart beating makes me feel better, but once the nasty has hit my chest, it’s time to stop. Anecdotal evidence from friends and online forum-ites seem to agree, and I’ve heard enough stories of coughts becoming nasty infections not to risk it.

Tips on resting though a cold

Having to rest is frustrating, I know. However, the best thing you can do is try to embrace it.

If you ride often, your legs get plenty of exercise, and a couple of days rest will make absolutely no difference to your general health or well-being. In fact, giving your muscles a few days break will probably do them some good.

Once you’ve got your head around the fact that you need to stop, it’s time to make use of the time you might otherwise spend on the bike (NB: If you don’t have another means of transport, I’m getting to you next!).

To take your mind off the lack of riding, you could:

1)      Write that email / letter to an old friend who you’ve been meaning to get in contact with for months. You never know, you might get a reply next time they are under the weather.

2)      Make plans – if you usually ride to commute, sit down with a map and see if there is a nicer route to take. If you take part in events, find some new ones, or search out a new challenge and plan how you’re going to get fit for it.

3)      Take time out. There is a coffee shop near my house that’s open till 7.30pm. If I leave work at 6pm on by bike, I get home around 7pm, and I never make it out for a late night coffee – but whilst recovering from flueyness, I enjoyed a divine flat white after driving home.

Not sure where to go? Check out our favourite cycling cafes...


4)      Look after yourself. For me that’s painting my nails or actually going crazy and plucking my eyebrows. You know – all the things most of my more girly friends do every week. For you that might mean tidying your sock draw so you can actually find a pair next time you want to or ironing some shirts you forgot you owned.

5)      On tidying and organising – how about actually sorting out that huge pile of life admin – invoices, receipts, bank statements. It might sound boring – but you’ll feel a whole lot lighter once you’re done.

Of course, all of the above might actually sound quite appealing – but what if you ride to work, and don’t have another way to get there? Or – what if you’re just too damn pig headed to stop riding?

Cycling with a cold:

1)      Take It Easy. I really mean that (hence the caps).

When you are ill, your immune system is working super hard to get you back to full health. Stressing your body with exercise that causes you to breathe very hard and elevates your heart rate a lot  (anaerobic exercise) also puts stress on your immune system. Combine the two and you won’t get better quickly.

Research is varied here, but generally it’s considered that aerobic exercise – that is exercise at a low intensity – does not stress your immune system as much, or possibly at all. In addition, the hormones released by low intensity exercise could make you feel better. Do be careful, however, that the ‘happy hormones’ don’t mask the illness, causing you to push yourself harder than you should.

2)      If you’re even a tiny bit competitive: Do not track your ride. Do not use a computer, or enable whatever app you use on your phone. Knowing that you are riding more slowly will not help you. And most certainly do not ride with any other human beings you know.

My Tracks app on Android

3)      When I’m on the mend from a cold, but still a bit snotty, I find getting out in the fresh air helps to loosen all the, erm – grossness. This is good – you do need to get rid of the mucus – but do remember to wear gloves. The ‘soft, absorbent sweat wipe’ glove manufactures talk about is not really a sweat wipe, but a snot wipe. Put it to good use.


4)      Make sure you get enough shuteye to make up for the lack of rest from cycling. Sleep – for as many hours a night as you can.

5)      Your body needs to be as well nourished as it possibly can be. I opt for lots of water,  apparently this thins out mucus and makes it easier to be rid of,  tons of fruit, and a little help from Echinacea, Vitamin C and assorted multivitamins.

Do you ride with a cold, or do you prefer to rest it out? Either way, do you have any coping mechanisms I’ve not mentioned?

Join 10,221 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

15 Responses to Cycling with a cold: to ride, or not to ride?

  1. Mik 03/06/2014 at 9:32 am #

    I’ve just come out the other side of a couple of weeks of pretty nasty gastric illness (I have some other on going issues that mean I have a poor immune system at the moment which hasn’t helped) so I’m currently trying to build up the ‘courage’ to start the commute again. I’m figuring I’ll start with some cross trainer time at home to prove to myself the stamina is there for an hour on the bike before I don the lycra and jump off the deep end.

    Sniffle wise, similar to you, I ride through mild colds and huddle up feeling sorry for myself when the proper man flu hits.

  2. MJ Ray 03/06/2014 at 9:41 am #

    As long as I can balance and the limbs work well enough, I’ll ride. Probably slower than usual and more upright and relaxed, but relaxed riding is less stressful on the body than walking briskly.

  3. Mrs janet groves 03/06/2014 at 10:18 am #

    I’ve pulled a muscle in my back and only do slow walking and can’t ride my bike. So I’m resting and reading a really good book- “it’s all about the bike” by Robert Penn. . A motivating book that will rest you and stop you getting agitated at having to rest.. Thats one way of managing.

  4. Samuel 03/06/2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks michelle for those tips, very helpful as always! I don’t ride myself when I am sick, I have taken an habit to instead do some pull-ups and push-ups and pumping the weights since I am skinny (lol)

  5. Phil 05/06/2014 at 11:03 am #

    I have a pretty robust constitution- colds rarely last longer than two days. I will ride unless I’m sneezing and coughing, If I’m not riding, zhan zhuang ( look at the ‘Stand Still, Be Fit’ videos on Youtube ) is a fantastic exercise which doesn’t require muscular exertion and definitely improves circulation and breathing.

  6. Ordinary Cycling Girl 05/06/2014 at 10:25 pm #

    I’m just recovering from a chest infection which seems to have taken an age to get over. Now that I’m feeling better, it’s time to brave getting back on the bike, only I’m dreading that feeling of realising how much fitness I’ve lost! I know my legs are going to hurt! I do think it’s important to let your body heal though. Over these last couple of weeks, I have discovered some great pilates sessions on You Tube though, which have helped me to feel like I’ve been doing something at least!

  7. andy 07/06/2014 at 8:47 am #

    heavy exercise whilst you’re immune compromised is not a good idea.
    your body is trying to fight off something; give it a chance. having said that, keep the pumps going to help clear the waste through the lymphs. above all, listen to your body. back off it you feel bad.

  8. Dr Morris Zwi 07/06/2014 at 10:44 am #

    Hi Michelle,

    I enjoyed your article apart from the inaccuracies about what aerobic and anaerobic exercise really is. Unfortunately I suspect that you’ve fallen into the trap of looking it up on exercise junkie websites where they misuse the term “anaerobic” exercise to describe low intensity, sustained exercise…. rather than looking at the physiology.

    Aerobic exercise is basically the conversion or breakdown of glucose to to release energy (and water) whilst using oxygen…. and this is what our bodies do in the first instance, in all circumstances where energy is required.

    Anaerobic metabolism only kicks in when the demand for energy (for example, in high level sustained exercise) exceeds the energy produced through the breakdown of glucose by aerobic means.

    In this state of high demand where the body is unable to use oxygen and glucose to produce energy (and water) it takes a different metabolic pathway, without using oxygen (i.e. anaerobic = without air = without oxygen) that is far less efficient in terms of energy production, and produces energy (and lactic acid as waste). It is the lactic acid, or lactate, that causes fatigue and cramp in muscles.

  9. George 07/06/2014 at 2:11 pm #

    Is anyone else finding the air quality this year much worse? I have had a persistent cough since November – been for chest X-Ray and everything – which I am inclined to attribute to worse than usual smog.

  10. Lep Recorn 07/06/2014 at 3:44 pm #

    An old runners adage . . .
    (That is an old adage not one from an old runner,
    (although I am that as well)) . . .

    Above the neck, what the heck.
    On the chest, give it a rest.

  11. dottigirl 07/06/2014 at 4:39 pm #

    Good article, excepting the vitamin supplements, it sums up my general approach. There’s nothing like a bit of fresh air to clear the airways
    Other tips: My gran (an organic dairy farmer all her life) always used to avoid pasteurised dairy products and wheat when she was unwell. As a family, we’ve always used cold compresses around the lower torso/kidneys for high temperatures, and she used to do this even for a cold. She always used to advocate covering your chest in bed, and in cold weather; research has only recently acknowledged that getting cold can give you a cold (bugs breed better at lower-than-body-temperature).

  12. david hingley jogle2015 26/07/2015 at 10:59 am #

    I started fully laden on my old giant mountain bike the jogle from john o groats 13th july.last frday after continually getin soaked got advised by cumberland hospital doc to lay off bike for a couple of days.i am 62yrs and gettin worried hwmuh its costin in guest hse while i battle chest infection. Even if still coughing but not as chesty howmany days shud i give it. There is added pressure of monies raised so far. Tho i did stress there isnt a time limit.i wud apprec sum in put please as i lie in bed feelin sorry 4 myself lol

    • MJ Ray 26/07/2015 at 3:59 pm #

      Take medical advice… and if you’re doing a long charity ride, I’d really recommend figuring out your waterproofing and toolkit as well as possible. I can ride for a couple of hours in light rain or an hour in a deluge before I start getting too wet to ride comfortably.

  13. Scott 19/10/2015 at 10:48 pm #

    Unfortunately I couldn’t find the answer I was looking for. When you address resting in your article, you said something to the effect “a couple days of rest won’t hurt you.” But what if a cold turns into a nagging cough (below the neck) that lasts for weeks because they can.. Then how long should I stay off my bike? Weeks until it’s completely gone?? The answer to that question is one I cannot locate online. My gut tells me that in order for white blood cells to accumulate and do their job, all intensive excercise should be stopped otherwise intensive excercise will deplete them. It’s just tough when you have a racing schedule to adhere to.

    • Mrs Copley 05/08/2017 at 10:55 pm #

      In this case go with your own intuition.. one ride will either make u feel a little better or a little groggy but not enough to cause a longer recovery.. you do have to establish a little bit of common sense and listen to your body.. then slowly increase as you get better.

Leave a Reply