This is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) regularly. This story will be updated as new information becomes available.
While the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, causing bike races—and many other large events—to be postponed and canceled, you might be wondering what you should do for your own personal health and how this could affect your training.
We tapped David Nieman, Dr.PH., health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Matt Ferrari Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science, and a researcher with the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, at Penn State to help answer cyclists’ most frequently asked questions.
Is it safe to ride outside?
Yes—as long as you’re alone. When people congregate together and someone sneezes or coughs, droplets get onto objects that people touch, and then people touch their face, Nieman explains. The best plan for riding right now is to go out and ride solo and enjoy the outdoors, in noncrowded areas. And, try timing your rides for when you know your route will be less crowded.
Additionally, people might be afraid to ride outside in the colder weather for fear of illness, but that’s not true; there is no data that you will get sick from really any respiratory pathogen when riding in cold weather, Nieman says.
Getting in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to brisk activity can help your immune system keep viruses at bay. Be sure you know what’s going on in your area and if there are any restrictions or mandatory self-quarantines. And, if you’re sick or at-risk of spreading the virus, you shouldn’t go out.
During a quarantine, Nieman suggests doing some exercise, while staying quarantined wherever you are to keep healthy—doing bodyweight exercises or riding on your living room trainer are great ways to do this. Unless you’re sick.
“If you do have flu or coronavirus, or have a fever, sick people think wrongly they can ‘exercise the virus out of the system’ or ‘sweat it out,’ that’s a myth. It’s actually the opposite,” Neiman says.
Should I be wearing a mask or face covering?
CDC guidelines have recently been updated to recommend “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) to help reduce the spread of the virus from spreading between people interacting in close proximity.” (Guidelines are rapidly evolving.) Before those updates, some state governments, like those in California and Pennsylvania, began suggesting that everyone wear cloth face coverings when they go out in public for essential activities in order to help prevent those that are asymptomatic from spreading the disease. And, the WHO has more resources on how to properly use masks.
“Really, what these announcements should mean to athletes, and to everyone, is that the situation we are in is very serious. And that we all need to consider the consequences of our individual actions on the community around us,” Ferrari says.
For example, the Pennsylvania guidelines state that masks “should not be worn damp or when wet from spit or mucus,” and in a press conference on April 3, Rachel Levine, M.D., Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, suggested that cloth face coverings may not be necessary when out for solo exercise if you will be in a place you won’t encounter anyone else. There is no advantage to wearing a face covering if you are not going to be near people at all, explains Ferrari.
“And that’s what we should be striving for, keeping big distances,” Ferrari says. “Face coverings do two possible things—they contain spread from the ill and prevent inhalation in the healthy. The degree to which they achieve these things is debated, but one thing is not: they are only really effective if used properly. And most people are not trained to use masks properly. Even taking a mask on and off incorrectly can be risky and increase your hand-to-mouth exposure.”
Wearing a Buff or other moisture-wicking face covering while riding as well as maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others may help cut down on droplets being spread to others due to heavy breathing if you’re in an area where you may encounter others, Nieman says.
“The purpose of the mask is not to protect you, but to protect other people from you,” Labus says. “If that is the goal, going out solo and avoiding other people altogether is the best thing you can do.”
This means avoiding crowded areas, even if you get to your regular route and there are other people there, you should find a different place to go for the safety of everyone.
“This virus is highly contagious and transmissible, and it appears we cannot be too careful,” Nieman says.
However, wearing a cloth face covering is not a substitute for hand washing, physical distancing, or remaining at home when ill. Check your local government recommendations for guidance. (You can find a directory of state health departments here.)
Can you ride outside during a shelter-in-place mandate?
Effective March 19, residents of the state of California were ordered to shelter in place until further notice, meaning everyone is to stay inside their homes and away from others as much as possible. However, as outlined in the directive first put in place in San Francisco, for example, most shelter-in-place mandates allow for people to go outside and engage in solo outdoor activity, such as riding, walking, and hiking, as long as people practice safe social distancing (stay at least six feet apart), do not gather in groups, and do not go out if they are feeling sick.
Other states, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have statewide mandates, and other cities and counties, including San Miguel County in Colorado, Blaine County in Idaho, and Athens-Clarke County in Georgia have implemented similar measures.
If you are an essential worker or need to get outside for exercise, cycling is encouraged, according to a statement from the European Regional Office for the WHO. As long as you maintain safe social distancing practices, cycling to work can help you avoid unnecessary contact with others, helping to limit the spread of the virus, and also help meet daily recommendations for physical activity.
Should you avoid riding in groups?
Yes. Even mountain bike rides, where you’re typically farther apart and single file, should be done solo as to cut down on the risk of an asymptomatic rider spreading the virus to others.
And, as of March 18, USA Cycling has recommended races and other gatherings, such as races and group rides be canceled or postponed and is suspending permits on all events through May 3. And, if you have any symptoms, including a fever and a cough, or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, you should not be going for a ride, as you risk spreading it to others.
How dangerous is spitting while cycling right now?
Spreading COVID-19 via spit is possible, according to Amy Treakle, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with The Polyclinic in Seattle. “COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, and transmission may occur when these droplets enter the mouths, noses, or eyes of people who are nearby. Spit contains saliva but could also contain sputum from the lungs or drainage from the posterior nasopharynx,” she says.Sorry, snot rocketeers: Treakle says shooting mucus out of your nose isn’t any better. “Having witnessed and participated in races, I think it’s appropriate to note that this would apply to projectile nasal secretions.”
And, the spread of the particles being about six feet (current safe social distancing recommendations) is based on people standing near each other and not fast movement or strong air currents. Those could increase or decrease that distance. In a scenario where someone rides into a sneeze or a cough, that would obviously present an increased risk, says Labus. That’s why it’s important to stay in your home if you are feeling sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick, in order to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus to others.
How long can COVID-19 live on clothing?
Experts don’t yet know the risk of transmitting the virus from surfaces like clothing, Treakle says. But the World Health Organization reports that coronaviruses can remain on surfaces for a few hours up to several days. If your clothing gets hit by spit, avoid touching the area, and change your clothing as soon as possible, washing your hands afterward. To disinfect clothing, wash it in hot water and use the dryer’s high setting.
Should I avoid touching things outside?
Though it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, according to the CDC. However, there could be a problem if someone coughs into his or her hand immediately before touching a traffic button, and then you touch the traffic button after them, Nieman explains. In general, the CDC recommends avoiding high-touch surfaces, like elevators and doors, so if possible avoid touching traffic buttons as well. If you must touch the traffic button, do not touch your face after. Even better? Use a glove (then avoid touching your face), sleeve, or elbow.
Can coronavirus be spread through sweat?
According to the CDC, transmission of the coronavirus happens between people who are in close contact with one another (about six feet) and through respiratory droplets, produced through a cough or sneeze—not sweat.
Am I contagious if I have no symptoms?
This is one thing we don’t fully understand yet about coronavirus. You are probably contagious right before you begin to show symptoms, but we don’t know for what time period and we don’t know how contagious. It makes sense that you would be more contagious once you are coughing, but we don’t fully understand transmission yet, Labus says.
Is my immune system weaker postride or after a hard workout?
As you deplete your stores of glycogen, your immune system does not function as well as it normally does. That means in the hours following a hard ride or race, if you have been exposed to someone who has been sick with the flu or coronavirus, your bodies defenses are down, Neiman says. Additionally, mental or physical stress—caused by exerting yourself on a long ride, in a race, or after very hard workout—could slightly increase your chances of becoming ill, Labus explains.
“I would caution cyclists to avoid long, intense rides or workouts right now until we get through all this and just to kind of keep things under control,” Nieman says. “Don’t overdo it. Be worried more about health than fitness.”
However, that doesn’t mean you need to quit riding or exercising altogether. There is a very strong connection between regular exercise and a strong immune system in the first place, so the long-term immune system benefits of exercising far outweigh any short-term concerns, Labus says.
Are gyms safe for indoor training?
Right now, no. Many cities and states around the country are taking extra measures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, which includes closing all nonessential businesses, and on this list—gyms. Overall, be sure to check your local public health recommendations before heading anywhere for a workout. (You can find a directory of state health departments here.)
And, no matter where you sweat, you should remember to wash your hands regularly, especially after your workout and wipe down all your equipment when you are done using it.
If people are using public bike shares, like CitiBike, are there any extra precautions to take?
If an ill person has used it right before you, they could leave behind their viruses on the handlebars. If you wipe it down with antibacterial wipes before you use it, that should protect you against being exposed to many different diseases, Labus says. And, CitiBike has a team of field associates who disinfect high-contact surfaces on bikes daily.
And, according to the CDC, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it, like bike handlebars, and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
In general, using bike shares should be okay, as long as you wipe the bike down beforehand, and it wouldn’t hurt to have gloves on. And, be sure to wash your hands as soon as you can and avoid touching your face, Nieman says.
If my race isn’t canceled, should I go?
You might be wondering what to do about the upcoming race you’ve been training for. Bottom line, no. The CDC recommends that if there is community spread, any event be canceled. And, the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America suggest that people avoid social gatherings of over 10 people for the next 15 days to help slow the spread.
Nieman suggests that the goal right now is to avoid crowds and gatherings of people indoors and outdoors until we know better about how the virus can spread.
If my race is canceled but there are other group ride events in its place, should I go?
You might be seeing group rides or unofficial races popping up in your community in place of canceled races. But any time people come together, there is a chance for the disease to spread. So again, the answer here is no. The CDC recommends that if there is community spread, any event be canceled.
In general, be mindful of your interactions with others and take basic steps to protect yourself, like washing your hands, limiting direct contact with others, and not touching your face, you can reduce your risk of many different infections, Labus says. Remember that, even though everyone is focused on coronavirus, flu is still circulating widely.