Hands cup a warm shot of espresso.

Base-training season is often cold & flu season, too

Keeping to a training calendar means being smart about seasonal illness

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  • Colds and flu always ramp up in the winter. Take preventative measures.
  • If you do get hit with a bug, know when to delay training
  • When you’re up to training again, take it easy
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“Champions are built in the winter.”


At least, that’s how the old saw goes. Trouble is, the winter is also the time when sniffles, coughs, and fevers abound. How is a cyclist supposed to build a good, strong base in the winter months with all those bugs about? It’s a tough one; to be a champ in the spring races means you systematically build your endurance and strength in the late fall and early winter, then convert that strength to speed and power on the bike. Spending a week — or more — sipping tea and chicken broth is a sure way to negatively affect that hoped-for spring outcome.

Why does flu always strike in the winter?

It doesn’t matter where you live; if you have a winter, you have a flu season. But why is that? Scientists still aren’t completely sure, but there are observable patterns that have given rise to some solid theories, such as:

  1. Since people are cooped up in the winter breathing each other’s air, we’re essentially “recycling” each other’s germs
  2. Winter darkness means a lack of vitamin D and melatonin. Add cold to that recipe, and you have weaker immune systems.
  3. The virus itself is more receptive to cold, dry air. Warm, humid summer air doesn’t treat it so kindly.


Circulating fresh air that has been warmed and made more humid (such as by running humidifiers during the winter) can go a long way towards helping to keep you flu-free.


Be extra vigilant

If you work as hard as I do planning out a calendar of weightlifting, cross training, and on-bike specific training leading up to prioritized races, the idea of missing days, or — gasp — a week or more is extremely disheartening. Fitness is cumulative. Exceptional performance requires a balance of nutrition, appropriately measured intensity to training, and recovery in order to achieve adaptations that result in speed and strength. In short, you just don’t want to get sick. Here are some things to be extra-mindful of as the light and temperature wanes and we head to our basements and “pain caves” to grind it out on our turbos.

  • Minimize stress
    Ultimately, all illness is a result of stress having reached a tipping point. Be a self-centered athlete during late fall and early winter. Prioritize your well-being so you can be at your best — not only for your own performance, but for family and friends, too
  • Don’t scrimp on sleep
    Correctly intense workouts paired with full recovery is the name of the training game. Get enough sleep each night so that you don’t have to rely on an alarm to wake you. That’s key any time of year, but even more so with so many little aliens seeking to invade your innards.
  • Be very wary of bringing germs to your nose and mouth
    Frequent hand washing, keeping your distance from those who are sneezy and coughing, refusing to share any foodstuffs with anyone who is ill
  • Be as mindful with your nutrition as you are with your training plan
    Hydrate! Avoid refined sugars like the poisons they are, and keep your Vitamin D stores topped up (real foods, like shitake mushrooms and salmon, for example, are preferred to supplements)
  • Colds and flu, just like intense workouts, are catabolic. That means they “tear down” healthy structures. Post-workout, it’s even more important at this time of the year to recover effectively.


Darn. It got me. Can I still train?

The quick answer to that question is, “a qualified yes.”

And that’s only if you’ll recognize “training” to include a recovery-level effort in Zone 1, and then — only if your symptoms are above the neck.

Again, it comes down to an understanding of catabolism. We train to stress our bodies in specific, planned ways. Assuming we have accurate baselines (a Functional Threshold Power test, a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate test, etc.) and we’ve calculated our training zones accordingly, AND we have a clear understanding of what our weaknesses are and how those weaknesses can limit our performance in races we’ve planned to do well in — then we can stress our bodies (catabolize) them appropriately. Then, the recovery process rebuilds (supercompensates) for the previous weakness.

If your body if fighting a cold or a flu, and then you add additional stresses via training, you only stand to delay your fitness at best, and cause potentially life altering — or ending — damage.

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I’m not fear-mongering, there. When the heart contracts an infection caused by a common cold virus, you’re going to be missing a lot of training. Mononucleosis, myocarditis, and pneumonia are real possibilities. This is why the wisdom surrounding suspending training when symptoms are “below the neck” is so solid. If you have wheezing, chest congestion, a chest cough, or are expectorating, don’t do any training other than some light stretching. Sore throats, fever, chills, diarrhea, and vomiting aren’t exactly conducive to completing a Sufferfest video, anyway.

Bottom line: got the sniffles? Maybe a scratchy throat and a little congestion? Sure — pop some tunes on the iPod, keep it to Zone 1, and you may actually experience a little relief from that congestion as your body warms up. But I wouldn’t bundle up and hit the road, or do any intervals. No way. Your body is marshaling resources to rid itself of sickness. It’s in no shape to build speed or strength.


I woke up this morning allllll better…

That’s awesome! But if I were coaching you, I’d still tell you to hit the couch and take in some Netflix.

If your below the neck symptoms have gone bye-bye, wait a day. Then, hop on the bike for a Zone 1 ride. I’d advise you to stay in Zone 1 recovery pace until your above the neck symptoms have also abated.

When can you get back to the hard stuff? Not so fast. Give yourself several days of longer and longer duration training, but keeping it in recovery pace, especially if you were sick for several days. I’d recommend this for up to a week of ramping back up. If symptoms return, quit riding, and get back to resting.


[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: When you get hit by a cold or flu, have you “soldiered on?” Or have you cooled your jets ’til you feel better? [/icon_box]
Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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