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I haven’t ridden since Christmas – help!

Michael Donlevy
25 Jan 2021

Ask the expert: One month down the line, here's how to get back to where you were before the festive blowout

This is about detraining, which in simple terms is the loss of performance adaptations as a result of time off the bike. Key here is that these are accumulated adaptations, and the problem is that it takes a long time to build fitness that you lose very quickly if you’re not training.

If you take one week off – through illness, injury or for Christmas – the general rule is that it takes four weeks to get back to where you were. Worse, the effect is the same if you heavily overindulged in December without taking time off the bike. Overindulgence has the same metabolic effect as not training.

That said, if you take a week off you’re losing your ‘performance edge’ rather than your base fitness. You were fast, but you’re not as fast now. Base fitness takes longer – more like four weeks – to start to erode.

How much training were you doing before you took a break? If you knew you were going to have time off you could have trained to overreach, almost but not quite to the point of overtraining, so that any break acted as recovery time to limit fitness losses. That requires planning, so it’s something to consider before your next break.

If you’re not riding you must be disciplined with your nutrition and sleep, and you need to moderate or eliminate alcohol intake. Getting these things wrong degrades fitness.

Nutrition is massively important, and experience has taught me that if you eat whole foods and low carbs your fitness doesn’t decline as quickly as if you have an unhealthy diet.

For most people, though, Christmas isn’t a recovery block. OK, if you eat 7,000 calories on Christmas Day you’re not going to gain a huge amount of weight overnight. Your body works hard to keep your weight safe and healthy in the short term. But if you overindulge for 10 days you’ll gain weight, which exacerbates the effect of detraining.

Living on alcohol, sugar, refined grains and vegetable oils slows your metabolism, which makes weight harder to shift. The result is that when you do start riding again you spend the first 10 days losing weight rather than getting fitter.

It’s ridiculous to think that you might be carrying an extra couple of kilograms up a climb when you might have spent thousands of pounds on shedding a couple of grams from your bike.

Still, let’s say you’ve taken four to six weeks off and gained a few pounds. Actually, that’s what the pros do, despite the racing season expanding. It’s not outrageous. It’s essentially an end-of-season break.

The key is to come back slowly. Get used to being back on the bike and riding consistently, and treat it the same as any base-building block. Volume is far more important than intensity for at least the first couple of weeks.

You can probably cover at least 75% of the distance you were riding before Christmas, but ride at a level you can enjoy. At this stage it’s about logging miles.

Depending on your base fitness you can probably really start to increase the mileage by week three, and then start to think about speed work after four weeks. This isn’t the icing on the cake – it’s the cherry on top of the icing. A tiny bit of intensity can give you big gains, but do too much and it’s basically fatigue accumulation.

That’s not the sexy way of looking at it, but doing 10 three-minute intervals with 30 seconds rest isn’t the most beneficial session if you do it all the time.

The expert: Will Newton is a former Ironman triathlete who is now a cycling, triathlon and endurance coach. He spent eight years as British Cycling’s regional director for the southwest of England. For more info visit limitlessfitness.com

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