Health and fitness | 12 MIN READ

Returning to cycling after an injury

Returning to cycling after an injury

Anyone who pursues an athletic endeavor, whether recreationally or professionally, knows what an injury means: time away from doing something we love and need—bike riding. There is an undeniable mind-body connection, one that continues to be illustrated by countless scientific studies, so an interruption in that balance can throw the whole body out of whack. Falls and crashes are inevitable, but the hope is that we walk away unscathed, our bikes equally as lucky. Plenty of cyclists have enjoyed decades-long cycling careers with nothing more but minor scrapes and bruises. However, in the event that we sustain an injury serious enough to keep us out of the saddle for an extended period of time, we already know it’s going to be a tough run for us.

cycling injury

Any injury, no matter how minor or severe, will likely prove to be one of the most difficult things we have to deal with in sports. Whether it’s been a few weeks, months, or even years, getting back on a bike after a ride-related injury can feel like “a lot” to most people in that predicament. How the recovery period is handled depends on a variety of factors, most of which are personal and may require introspect and time. With all things being subjective, the experience of those who have been here before suggests that success will depend on the effort put in and the ability to create and follow a recovery plan.

Have a recovery plan

While the culture of cycling may very well glorify jumping right back into the race after a fall, it doesn’t mean that it’s the “right” thing to do. And what might be “right” for one person may not be for another. How we handle a crash is very unique to each of us, but one thing everyone needs before getting back on the saddle is a plan.

All recovery plans should address mental and physical health and include goals in each category. Also included should be the injury rehabilitation process and members of your recovery team (many of which include the doctor overseeing the recovery process, a physical therapist or similar professional, and a psychologist or psychiatrist). Always be sure to involve yourself in the process by providing input, voicing concerns, and asking questions when necessary. Goals should address performance, process, and result objectives. Despite the fact that it may be challenging, be prepared to discuss difficulties and setbacks and how to lessen them. With the right goals, a thorough recovery plan in place, and an open mind that is willing to do some hard work, anyone can find themselves riding again.

recovery plan

Physical recovery

The most commonly addressed bike-related injuries and associated symptoms are physical, meaning that they pertain to the body and the physical pain, discomfort, or limitations that are being experienced. Road rash, muscle strains and sprains, and broken bones are all examples of physical injuries.

See a medical professional

Always seek the advice of a medical professional after sustaining any injury and be careful to follow their recommendations, especially when it pertains to wound care. Even if the injury doesn’t appear serious, what may seem insignificant to the untrained eye may look entirely different to that of an orthopedic surgeon. During an interview, former Olympian cyclist Kristin Armstrong stated that “sometimes when you crash, you don’t realize the injuries you have until afterwards, because the endorphins kick in.” It’s a reminder to always listen to your body and err on the side of caution when injured.

At least take a short break

Always take a short break after a serious fall—even if the injury doesn’t seem serious itself. Doing so gives your entire being time to recover and refresh, and most importantly, prevents the injury from getting worse. During that break, avoid ruminating on the situation because all ruminating does is cause additional stress. Increased stress levels can halt our bodies' natural healing processes and will not aid in the regeneration of damaged tissue.

Sleep and diet are key

Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and a balanced diet is also key to a solid physical recovery. Injuries do not give us an excuse to become lax on our sleep schedules. Former Olympian, Mara Abbott, emphasizes the importance of a focus on sleep and eating for recovery, explaining that the “body needs to recover from stress and build back up.” She also advises against lowering caloric intake to match your lower activity level during recovery because “it needs the additional nutrition and energy to rebuild.” Remember that the body needs extra energy to effectively heal; sleep and food deprivation will not aid in recovery.

Physical therapy and target area exercises

After enduring a physical injury, it’s not unusual for medical professionals to recommend physical therapy or specific exercises to aid in the recovery process. Low-impact exercises, such as pedaling a stationary bike, water aerobics or swimming, and yoga, are typically good options for those who need to maintain physical activity without causing further or additional injuries. Keep in mind that the focus is to train supporting muscles and ease back into regular physical activity—not to get back into pre-injury shape.

physical therapy

What is mental health?

Accidents and crashes typically result in some kind of injury, ranging from minor to life-threatening, and they are almost always visible with the naked eye. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to focus on the physical aspects of an injury—because they’re most obvious. Not only are they easy to see, but because there’s usually pain associated with injury, it’s also easy to focus on the source of pain. However minor or major a physical injury may be, the effects of a bike crash on your mental health should never be ignored. While everyone responds differently, suffice to say, no one is ever “okay” with being involved in a crash. In fact, sometimes these “unseen” injuries to our mental health can be more damaging and difficult to overcome than the physical ones, so whenever necessary, find a professional to talk with about it.

What exactly is “mental health?”

The CDC defines mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” It’s the ability to think clearly and make good decisions while coping with stress and managing emotions. Because it’s important throughout every stage of life, from childhood throughout adulthood, it’s imperative that we understand the components of mental health and how to best care for ourselves.

Why is mental health important?

Mental health is just as important as physical health and is essential in establishing good overall health. By making mental health a priority and maintaining an overall healthy state of mind, the risk of developing a variety of other chronic health conditions linked to poorer mental health is reduced significantly. For instance, poor mental health is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Mental health conditions can arise after an injury

Mental health conditions are actually a lot more common than many people realize. Having a mental health condition doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with you; it means that there’s some work to be done. The stress that often results from being injured and in recovery can lead to conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

  • Anxiety. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Other physical symptoms include a fast heart rate, feelings of tiredness or exhaustion, rapid breathing, and sweating. There are plenty of situations in which anxiety can be considered “normal,” such as the stress that accompanies starting a new job or moving to a new city.
  • Depression. Depression, the most commonly occuring mental disorder, is defined by the APA as “extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than days” and that it “interferes with the activities of daily life and can cause physical symptoms, such as pain, weight loss or gain, sleeping pattern disruptions, or lack of energy.” It’s important to understand the distinction between feeling sad and depressed. Everyone feels sad from time to time, especially after certain major life events, but that sadness eventually dissipates. Depression is an ongoing condition that in addition to physical symptoms, can also cause sufferers to experiences feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt, and repeated thoughts of self-injury or suicide.
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people develop PTSD after a bike crash. PTSD is described as being “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.”

depression

If you think you might be suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other mental health condition, don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional. Whether it’s talk therapy, medication, both, or an entirely different route, there are ways to address mental health so you can get to feeling better sooner than later.

What does it mean to “take care of” our mental health?

Being attentive to mental health needs means addressing all three components: emotional health, psychological health, and social well-being. Neglecting any one of these components of mental health will slow recovery and can put the future of your physical health at risk. “Taking care of” them has been linked to better self-esteem, reduced anxiety, and fewer health-related issues. Mental health professionals are a wealth of information, including coping strategies, and their goal is to help people. Regardless of where you are in your journey to recovery, contacting a therapist is often the most effective way to approach mental health needs, nothing to be ashamed of, and always encouraged.

Emotional well-being

Emotional health refers to our ability to cope with and manage both positive and negative emotions and affects our ability to develop positive relationships. It has more to do with emotional awareness, regulation, and related coping skills than anything else. People who report good emotional health have effective strategies in place to help navigate and manage negative emotions whereas those who haven’t established a way to cope with difficult situations and negative emotions are generally under more stress and experience more negative emotions, another pattern supported by science.

It can be difficult to determine whether our emotional health is where it needs to be, so knowing the most common signs that it’s lacking can be helpful in assessing our current emotional state:

  • Social isolation (especially if you’re generally a highly social individual)
  • Increase in interpersonal conflicts
  • Sleeping and eating too much or too little
  • Decrease in energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, irritability, or guilt
  • Neglecting personal care and hygiene

Because poor emotional health affects physical health, it’s imperative that emotional health is understood and that coping strategies are learned to better help manage emotions. A common misconception is that feelings themselves cause problems, but the bigger issue is how those feelings and emotional dysregulation influence decisions and behaviors, and future health. For example, drinking an alcoholic beverage or smoking cigarettes may seem to ease stress, but it also puts us at greater risk for developing a variety of related illnesses, including heart disease, liver problems, and cancers.

Psychological well-being

Yes, injury recovery means no bike rides, but for those who actually rely on a good ride to rebalance or refresh, it means so much more. It means we can’t engage in our favorite activity and are absent from our beloved riding community, all while losing the fitness we’ve worked so hard for. Oftentimes, we are left longing for the exhilarating feeling we get on our favorite trail and feeling heartbroken by the loss. Working through the psychological aspects of rehabilitation is just as important as properly mending our physical health because stress and loss of exercise during recovery may have a devastating impact on our mental health.

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior and encompasses 18 fields of study. Those in good psychological health are generally described as “happier” and exhibit an attitude of gratitude and optimism, resilience, and an overall positive perspective and sense of purpose. Poor psychological health is manifested by:

  • Depression
  • Recurring stress and anxiety
  • Feelings of irritation or anger
  • Pessimism
  • Feeling dissatisfied with life
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty managing negative emotions

Addressing poor psychological health is essential because failure to do so could result in developing chronic mental or physical health conditions. Like poor emotional well-being, poor psychological well-being can affect different aspects of health and wellness and can lead to the development of mental conditions and illnesses, as well as physical illness and disease.

Social well-being

The final element that comprises mental health is that of social well-being, which is highly contingent upon the environments where we spend the majority of our time. Social well-being is basically what it sounds like: our health as it pertains to social interactions and relationships with others. More specifically, it refers to how we share, develop, and sustain meaningful relationships with others to cultivate feelings of authenticity, connectedness, value, and inclusion.

Human beings are social creatures by nature, so making sure our social gas tank is filled is critical to our overall health and happiness. Failing to address our need to be around and interact with others means a failure to connect with others, ultimately depriving us of experiences that would otherwise have had a positive effect on our overall health and commonly resulting in a self-reinforcing spiral of:

  • Social isolation (not a choice)
  • Negative feelings or feelings of fear
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Poor self-esteem

Without proper knowledge, development, and maintenance of our social well-being, we are jeopardizing it and putting our overall health at risk. Remaining self-aware is essential if true healing is to occur.

Self-awareness and reflection

Being self-aware is critical in caring for your mental health. It can be hard to assess where we are mentally, particularly if we just endured a traumatizing experience, so make sure you take the time to determine how you’re processing everything. Some questions you can ask yourself when considering your mental health are:

  • What are my motivation levels, especially regarding riding?
    Staying motivated when you’re going through bike withdrawal can be a challenge, so taking conscious steps toward building and maintaining motivation is essential. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to help give yourself the drive you need to work toward the goal of riding again. If you surround yourself with people who are supportive, maintaining the attitude required to find the motivation you need to get yourself going will be much easier.
  • Do I feel fearful about riding again? If so, why?
    It’s totally normal to feel anxious or even scared about your first real post-injury ride. If you’re concerned that you’ve lost some of your bike handling abilities, not to worry - you can always work on rebuilding them. Remember - you weren’t always a beast on the bike.
  • Does this injury affect my self worth?
    Even though cycling plays a significant role in our lives, it’s imperative that we also realize that it isn’t everything; as hard as it is to believe, there’s more to life than bicycling. This applies to everyone across the board, olympians included.
  • Are there any positives I can take from this experience?
    One positive, particularly for endurance athletes, is that time away from cycling means more time to work on mental fortitude. Focusing on the things we can manage is one of the most crucial abilities for us to have, not just during injury recovery but also during training and competition. There are numerous variables beyond our control, and concentrating on them saps both our energy and our stress levels. Another positive is that if your injury permits, you can work on increasing strength in the areas of your body that are safe to subject to exercise.
  • Are there any other interests I can pursue during my recovery time?
    Maybe there’s a particular hobby or activity you’ve been hoping to look into, but time simply hasn’t permitted—until now. Recovery time can be the perfect time to delve into the many ideas and interests that have been swirling around in your brain.
  • Do I have a strong support system in place to help me cope?
    Acceptance is key in accepting and overcoming trauma, so having a solid support system of people who can help you look ahead and not dwell on the situation, or even someone to “just listen,” is of the utmost importance. Whether your support system consists of your family and friends, or is limited to doctors and a psychologist, it’s imperative that you have something in place to help manage the mental effects of being out of commission.

mental health

Remember that these inquiries are meant to refocus your attention back on activities outside of athletics. If you find yourself struggling with this notion, try exploring other pursuits that have the potential to make you feel “whole” again. While it might not be “the same” as riding, having a passion to immerse yourself in is one of the best ways to cope with being away from your bike, if and when you find yourself in this situation.

Consciously work to improve mental health

For many adults, exploring mental health needs is challenging. How to care for mental health isn’t something that is explicitly taught to children like the importance of a good diet and exercise are. Thankfully, there are countless strategies that adults can use to help improve self-awareness and address all three primary components of mental health. A good place to start is by asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” and then categorizing it into one of several categories, such as: sad, mad, scared, or glad. Journaling is another way to explore your emotional health and you can start with the same simple question, “What am I feeling?” and move on to greater self-discovery when you feel ready. Not ruminating on the negatives or holding grudges against others and refocusing attention on reasons to be grateful daily is one method backed by various studies, as are practicing breathing exercises and meditation. Also supported by research is the link between social interaction and positive emotional well-being.

When it’s finally time to return

When getting yourself ready for the big return to riding, there are some ways to help increase the likelihood of having a positive, successful experience. First and foremost, continue maintaining a positive attitude about your recovery and riding. Also be sure to listen to your body. At this point in recovery, it’s understandable that feelings of restlessness and impatience might be setting in, so being in tune with physical and mental health is of the utmost importance if you are to avoid making decisions that could ultimately slow the recovery process. Your doctor may have cleared you to ride again, but if you find that you’re experiencing pain, this is when you listen to your body and stop riding. If getting back to riding has to happen sooner than later, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to get to the bottom of what’s causing pain. In many cases, a mild level of discomfort may be experienced simply because the body hasn’t readjusted to the activity of riding, but you should never feel pain.

time to return

Plan ahead

If you were training for a race or similar type of endeavor, the sting of being injured is likely to be even greater. It can certainly be discouraging to find yourself in this position—especially if the big race day was only weeks or days away. Instead of basking in the misery of missing a big event, use time off of the bike as an opportunity to reassess your training plan. If you didn’t have one and were winging it, it’s the time to learn how to get the most bang for your buck when you train by educating yourself. If you already had a plan you were following, take this time to research the training methods that other highly successful athletes follow. Just because you’re off of the saddle for some time doesn’t mean you can’t come back better prepared and stronger.

Ease into it

Once your body has physically recovered from any and all injuries and you’ve been cleared by your doctor, be sure you ease back into riding. It’s imperative to be cognizant of the fact that this is a return from recovery and your baseline will be different now than it was pre-injury. Be conservative with your workload and resist the urge to push too hard, too fast. It’s worth noting that athletes who return to their sport following injury are not starting from scratch because muscles retain their fitness levels for quite some time, which can translate as a speedier recovery and return to riding.

Find ways to stay motivated

Putting the pedal to the metal is always a bit tough after an injury-related hiatus. Don’t allow yourself to become too discouraged if you’re just not “feeling it” on certain days. A variety of factors can affect motivation levels, including diet and hydration, sleeping habits, weather changes, and current life circumstances, so be gentle and understanding with yourself these days. Remind yourself it happens to everyone at some point and refocus on ways to improve your mood and the situation as a whole:

  • Ride with a group. For some, group rides are the best way to stay optimistic because they satisfy so many of a cyclist’s needs. For one, just about everyone else in the group is as passionate about riding as the next and can truly relate to the struggles of being away from the bike. Cycling buddies also offer encouragement throughout the ride and especially when you need it the most. Riding with others also helps rebuild some valuable skills that might be a little rusty, including climbing, descending, cornering, bike handling, and riding in close proximity to others. If you don’t already have a riding group, refer to local bike shops, social media groups, online forums, or just as a fellow rider.
  • Celebrate your progress-every single bit of it. Recovery isn’t easy, so every bit of progress that’s made should be acknowledged. Keep track of your accomplishments in a journal and take some time at the end of each physical therapy session or recovery ride. What only takes a few minutes at most can later serve as the greatest source of inspiration when you need it most. On those days where you’re having a serious case of the bikeblues, pull out your journal and flip through your many accomplishments.

Continue self-awareness and reflection

Being self-aware and engaging in self-reflection will continue to be key, even at this point in your recovery. This time, around, the focus is slightly different:

  • Am I being flexible with my recovery schedule or am I forcing a schedule that isn’t working for me?
  • Am I listening to my body and responding accordingly or pushing myself through pain?
  • Am I sleeping enough to allow for my body to heal?
  • What am I capable of today?

Even after making a full recovery, self-awareness and reflection should always be a part of your riding plan to promote good physical and mental health in the future.

Listen to your body

A big part of self-awareness and getting back on the bike is being willing to listen to your body and then make determinations based on what your body is telling you. It can be hard to acknowledge that our once beloved bike ride is now causing pain (not to be confused with mild discomfort), but not listening to these warning signs is likely to do more harm than good. Understanding that recovery plan deadlines are not set in stone and that any milestone date is subject to change is also critical in hearing those warning signs. Your doctor may have cleared you for returning to riding based on your recovery plan, but only you know what you’re feeling and whether or not what you’re doing is safe.

listen to your body

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