Give Me 20 Minutes

By Colin Sandberg

Indoor traning
Image courtesy of Zwift.

Have you ever woke up with a tickle in your throat, a high resting heart rate, a general ache that might be the first signs of a cold, but might possibly be nothing? What should you do? Take the day off? Go on about your day and see how it plays out? Or maybe something else entirely? When athletes ask me about this, my answer (90+ percent of the time) is “Give me 20 minutes”.

What I mean by this is forget whatever workout was on your schedule and ride 20 minutes of recovery indoors, preferably on the rollers. 20 minutes is enough time to test yourself out a little bit but not so much time that you risk making things worse and prolonging the illness. The ride also raises your metabolism a little, which will aid in recovery and loosens up your muscles a bit. Here is a schedule of where to go from there:

Day 1: Ride 20 minutes of recovery indoors, preferably on rollers. After the 20 minutes, do you feel better or worse?

Day 2: If you felt better after riding yesterday, ride 40-60 minutes (still at recovery). If you felt worse, repeat day 1.

Day 3: If you feel at least 90% healthy, ride 1-2 hours at endurance pace. If not, repeat day 2.

Day 4: If you still feel at least 90% healthy, continue with your regularly scheduled training, although if you’ve missed more than a week of training you may need to ease back into your high intensity training. In other words, don’t do Anaerobic Capacity intervals on your first day back.

Of course, if symptoms continue more than a few days, you should see a doctor. Many athletes make the mistake of trying to “tough it out” by either continuing for as long as possible as if nothing were wrong, not seeing a doctor soon enough, or refusing to take any medications. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising taking unnecessary medications or taking anything that might be prohibited (when in doubt check the global DRO at, only that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. From the moment you get sick, or think you might be getting sick, you should look at getting healthy as your new #1 training goal. Until you get healthy, doing all those hours and intervals are at best unhelpful and at worse destructive to your fitness. The 20 minute ride and the process I outlined above is not about improving fitness, it’s about improving health and figuring out when it’s OK to start training again.

Aside from being sick though, there are other cases where the 20 minute recovery ride might fit in:

  • When recovering from an injury, 20 minutes can be a good test. Here too, it’s long enough to test your body out without being so much time or intensity that you risk making things worse.
  • When you’re short on time, a 20 minute ride can be a good way to keep consistency in your training. By raising your metabolism and loosening up your muscles, you will lessen the “staleness effect” that you might feel if you take the day completely off. And just about everyone can find 20 minutes in their day, right?
  • If you’re struggling to find the motivation to do your scheduled workout, just do 20 minutes. You might find that the motivation comes after a little riding (sometimes the first step is the hardest). Or maybe it doesn’t come, in which case, you can try the same thing tomorrow.

Of course, there are also times when riding 20 minutes of recovery may not make sense. For example if you’re sick to the point where you can barely stand up, you probably shouldn’t be riding at all. If you’re having to miss out of sleep to do a 20-minute spin, you should probably just sleep. On the flip side, if you’re racing an “A race” the next day, you may decide that it’s worth it just to race and risk prolonging the cold. After all, this is one of the main events you’ve been training for and although the timing of the cold might be bad, you might very well still be able to perform well, especially if it’s only the first stages of the cold.

Colin SandbergColin Sandberg  is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. Thanks for reading!