Emerging from a pandemic snafu, part 1

The latest drama in what has been a roller-coaster year for my riding was catching that nasty little bug that just so happened to cause a global pandemic.

SARS-CoV2, and its accompanying disease COVID19, have been studied enough as of this writing to have vaccines developed against it, and mitigate its symptoms such that it’s no longer a death sentence. It’s also still so new that a complete picture of its long-term effects is still blurry at best. Documented cases of so-called “long COVID” paint a picture of the disease’s symptoms – elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, brain fog, and general fatigue – lasting months or even years after the initial infection.

What’s a cyclist aspiring to join an audax in less than two months supposed to do?

Outside of actually getting checked by a doctor and getting diagnostic tests done (blood and 2D echo are the most common ones I hear talked about by cyclist friends who’ve had COVID earlier than me), the one thing I can do is to swing a leg over my bike and test my fitness for myself.

Restraint is key here. I’m an impatient son of a gun, naturally gravitating toward putting on the power, but these first few rides are meant to feel out my physical condition and see what kind of baseline fitness and condition I have after recovering from COVID19. This is not the time to do an FTP test, hill repeats, or HIIT sessions. Fortunately, prior to the sickness, my audax preparation consisted of riding lots of hours at a very maintainable Zone 2.

My first ride back happened about a week after testing negative. Immediately my power numbers were quite a bit lower. At the same cadence and rate of perceived exertion, I was doing anywhere from 15-25 W less. Power numbers are a secondary concern compared to my physical condition though.

John-John Torres of the YouTube channel John-John Bikes, after having had COVID19 twice, suggested monitoring real-time heart rate, especially after harder efforts like pedaling 30-60 seconds out of the saddle. One thing to watch out for, he said, was how heart rate may stay elevated and not gradually decrease after backing off on the power, which is a big indication that something’s off. Fortunately for me, my heart rate reacted correctly, gradually reducing as I sat back down and let off the power after a short out-of-the-saddle stint.

Breathing difficulty or obstruction was never an issue for me, but the first few days after recovering from COVID19, it felt like every breath filled up only 75% of my lung capacity. On my usual brisk walks with a mask on during this time, I actually felt a bit light-headed.

On that first ride, that feeling still lingered a bit, but it wasn’t so bad that it felt threatening – especially at the low intensities I was working with. With no lightheadedness or brain fog to report, I was able to complete an hour at RGT’s flat Borrego Springs course on the trainer, albeit spending a lot more time at Zone 1 than I would like. This was a good baseline.

Two days later I got back on and did another Borrego Springs ride. This time I felt more like myself. Deep breaths no longer required more conscious effort, which meant I could dig deeper. Having a good baseline from the previous session meant that I could test my physical condition under more duress. I did that by spending more time out of the saddle and at higher wattages – a minute or more at around 300 W at a time. Recovering from each of these was as expected, my heart rate gradually dialing itself back along with the reduced effort.

These harder intervals aside, I spent most of this second ride at a higher average power output overall. This was reflected in a better average speed, and it didn’t felt like I was straining myself to hold 130 W average over 31.5 km, and 149 W over 20 minutes. This was encouraging progress.

These diagnostic rides are well and good, but the fact remains that COVID19 definitely took the scissors to the fitness I had built up in anticipation of December’s 200 km ride. Right now, I just don’t know how much it snipped off, and I’m operating on an ongoing educated guess. The plan is to get checked by the doctor while listening to my body and gradually adding training stress in a sustainable manner. Having had my training rides, though, I feel pretty optimistic as I head towards December.


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