6 Steps for Getting Back on the Bike After an Injury
Disclaimer: I am not a Doctor. Even if I were, I can’t guarantee that the recommendations laid out here will work for you. Every injury is a unique snowflake, and everyone's recovery time is different. End of disclaimer.
Step 1: Acceptance
Yes, this sucks. You had big plans to crush mile after mile this year, but now you’re unable to ride your bike, and that sucks. As unfortunate as injuries can be, your first step to getting back on the bike is accepting that you are injured, and that no amount of anger, despair, or sadness will make you uninjured. In fact, studies have shown that people with a positive attitude about recovery can return to normal activity faster than those with a negative outlook. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, focus your energy into what you can do to heal up faster.
Step 2: Be Smart. Or, more precisely: Don’t be Stupid
Often times athletes will listen to what their doctor has to say and then promptly ignore the recommendations because, “those suggestions can’t apply to me. I’m different. I heal faster than mere mortals.” We know, you’re a beast on the bike. You might even be the strongest rider out there. But unless you’re Wolverine from X-men you’re healing process is the same as everybody else. Your doctor isn’t saying you’re weak, so listen to what they say.
If the Doc says don’t get on the bike for six weeks, then don’t get on the bike for six weeks.
If the Doc says start with a five minute easy spin and add five minutes per week, then don’t bump it up to an hour on your third ride back
Even if you feel like you could do more, you run the risk of setting yourself back even further. This is why injuries that should only take a few weeks to heal become chronic issues with some athletes. They never gave their body enough time to really heal.
Step 3: Take care of yourself
This seems obvious, but many athletes end up treating their body worse when injured than they do while training. Maybe your diet has been great for the past three months, but now that you are injured why not have that pizza and ice cream you have been craving? While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional slice or dip into the Cherry Garcia, at the end of the day your body is trying to repair itself, and the higher quality food you give it, the more hydrated you keep it, and the more rest you get, the faster you will bounce back. Don’t slack on the veggies and fruits just because you are going to miss that target event of yours. The better you treat your body the faster you’ll be back on track.
Step 4: Ease yourself back into training.
It bears repeating: only your doctor knows what's best for you, and under no circumstances should you get back to training until you get the green light from them. “Returning to training” doesn’t mean hammering out an hour of VO2 max intervals. More often than not it means less than 20 minutes of easy spinning on a trainer, and you need to be okay with that. Remember, the whole idea of training is to give your body physical stress and force it to compensate so it gets stronger. When you’re injured, your body is using up much of your energy to heal itself. Jumping back into hard training before you are fully healed not only reduces the quality of that training, but the added stress will mean less energy available to heal.
Step 5: Rehab / Physical Therapy
Very few injuries affect both sides of the body equally. If you stack it coming into a high-speed corner one side will bear the brunt of the impact. By necessity you’ll tend to favor the less-injured side as you heal. This leads to all sorts of general muscle imbalances, whether in terms of strength or flexibility. That’s why proper rehab (once cleared by your doctor of course) is so important for the recovering athlete. Not only will you come out of this injury with fewer long term effects, but setting targets in rehab and then meeting them can serve as a substitute for training goals. Maybe you can’t hit a personal best up your favorite climb right now, but you will certainly be hitting new personal bests on your rehab exercises.
Step 6: Getting back in the saddle
The day will come when you can get back on your bike and have no restrictions on your riding, and it will be a glorious day. Depending upon how long you have been out of commission your fitness might have taken either a little dip or a monstrous nose dive. Regardless of where your fitness was before the injury, you’ll have some work to do if you want to get back to that level.
The first key is ramping things back up slowly. Starting with shorter sessions (again depending on what the doctor has approved) that won’t leave you gasping for air or your muscles burning. You’ll undoubtedly notice your heart rate is much higher for any given effort than it was before the injury. That’s because you’ve lost some of the plasma in your blood. Increased plasma volume is one of the adaptations your body makes after undergoing endurance exercise. This is why you want to take a few sessions of gradually increasing duration without much of an increase in intensity, so your body has time to increase your plasma volume again.
Once you have a week of easier riding in your legs and you still have the blessing of your doctor, you can start adding in tempo efforts. My favorites in this situation are either 6 minutes on, 4 minutes off or 7 minutes on, 3 minutes off. Not only does it give you plenty of time riding tempo, but it makes the time spent on the trainer go by that much faster.
This is also typically when I to transition to doing two rides a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This means you don’t have to sit on the trainer for more than an hour at a time, but you still get a decent amount of ride time in each day.
Every injury is different, but they almost all have warning signs that tell you you’re overdoing it. Make sure you ask your doctor what sort of symptoms to look for (and avoid) once you return to riding. For some injuries, a little soreness at the injury site is okay, for others that is a major red flag.
If at any point during any of these rides you identify one of the “symptoms” your doctor told you to look out for, you need to pull the plug right away. You can very easily set your recovery back a couple weeks just by “pushing through the pain” at the wrong time.
After a few weeks of riding twice a day 3-4 times a week you should be able to bring in a little more intensity.
Upping the intensity
A good session at this phase is 10 x 90-second builds from an effort of just below threshold to an effort just above threshold. This workout has just enough sting in it to cause some adaptation, but has a very low chance of causing you to overexert yourself. Over-exertion is a surefire way to delay your recovery. At the end of the day the most important thing is to be honest with yourself. Be honest about how you’re feeling. Be honest about the severity of your injury. Be honest about how careful you need to be. You are in control. The only person who can really set your recovery back is you. As much as you hate to miss out on weeks of training, you will be even more upset if you push too hard too early and end up setting yourself back even further.
Now I know what you might be thinking. “Yeah, yeah that’s all sensible advice, but what makes you such an expert on recovering from an injury?” Well, (un)fortunately I have had my fair share of down time from injuries beyond the normal wear and tear you get from kissing pavement on a bike. Over my eight years of racing at the elite level I’ve broken an ankle, had a bout of Epstein-Barr virus (Mononucleosis for you pathologists out there), broken my collarbone, and had back surgery. In 2014, nine weeks after breaking my collarbone I won 3 collegiate national championships on the track. In 2015 I raced the Team Time Trail at the Richmond World Championships with a herniated disc (not the smartest move, in hindsight). A few months afterwards I lost the ability to walk and had to undergo surgery which kept me off the bike for three months. Four months after that surgery I was able to get 3rd in the Individual Pursuit at Nationals, and a few months later I was representing the US National Team at the Pan American championships. Each and every time I was injured I followed the steps I outlined above. That’s not to say that it was easy. The absolute worst thing you can ask an active, highly-competitive person to do is to “take things slowly”. Every time I’ve had to let my body recover from some injury the hardest part has always been patience. Patience to not ride, patience to go through the sometimes tedious rehab exercises, the patience to sit there doing nothing (nothing except healing) while all of your competitors are out there training hard and getting faster.
The one thing I’ve really learned is that getting injured and fighting through pain is easy. Taking a step back and allowing yourself to fully recover is the hard part. You need to embrace your recovery and think of it as your ultimate training goal. Be as smart and dedicated to your recovery as you are to your training (which is NOT easy) and you will find yourself back to your pre-injury form before you know it.
Read more from Mac Cassin
- More about Mac: Meet the Director of Strategic Suffering
- The benefits of training with purpose: Why You Need a Structured Training Plan
- Surviving the holidays: A Survival Guide for Sufferlandrians on Holiday
- Vital info on LTHR: Everything You Think You Know About LTHR is Wrong
- How to get the most out of your smart trainer: Is ERG Mode Killing Your Training?
- Base training isn't right for everyone: Dropping LSD
Mac Cassin has been coached by Sir Neal Henderson since 2009 and is a coach at APEX Coaching, with a focus on masters and junior racers. As an elite cyclist who also has to balance the demands of ‘life’ with his goals as an athlete, Mac has a deep understanding of how to get the most out of those who have limited time to train. Mac has raced at the World and PanAmerican championships and holds several US national and state titles. His studies were in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado and has worked as a research assistant in the CU Neurophysiology lab.