What's Cool In Road Cycling

Injury Recovery: The Long and Winding Road

It’s an unfortunate aspect of our sport that we are almost pre-destined for a serious injury at some point in our career, whether self-inflicted or accident-related. After a little impromptu break-and-enter into the back of a car, our Toolbox Editor learns some valuable lessons and plots his comeback…

Break and Enter
No matter how well-designed our training nor how safely we ride, it is almost inevitable that we end up facing an unplanned detour through the sick bay. Until a few weeks ago, I had survived nearly 20 years of commuting, training, and racing throughout a good chunk of the world with only a few incidents of road rash from racing crashes. That was until the VW Golf decided to spontaneously appear in front of me, leading me to shatter the rear window with my shoulder.

Of course, Newton’s Third Law (equal and opposite reaction) could only mean that something got broken on my end too – namely my right shoulder blade in about 5 or 6 places, a broken rib that I didn’t feel until I sneezed last week, badly bruised lungs, and a severely lacerated right index finger.

You Know You’re Hardcore When…
Now I’m not a gonzo pro thinking of finishing the ride/race, and I knew I was hurt bad right away. But funny enough, beyond the pain in my shoulder and the shock of my finger cut wide open, pretty much my first thoughts were how much off-bike time this was going to mean. Second, of course, was the state of my bike (couldn’t see it – the paramedics had me on a spinal board by then). Third was what our Pez historian Graham Jones was going to do to me when he finds out they’re going to take the scissors to the jersey he just gave me for my birthday!

Lessons Learned
Spending far too many years cooped up in a windowless science lab does some strange things to a guy, namely looking at everything as an experiment and taking copious notes in the process. In the process though, I’ve learned or relearned some valuable lessons that I think applies to all of our training:

The importance of rest. We’ve hammered over and over in Toolbox about how the training itself is only half of the equation, and consequently the importance of focusing on recovery. Most of us hear that advice but it just doesn’t register and become habit. This really hit home when I found myself pretty much just taking naps repeatedly throughout the day even though I wasn’t necessarily sleepy. Essentially, my body was just shutting down and telling me that it needed to devote energy to healing and repairing itself. The same emphasis on recovery really needs to apply following the “damage” we do to ourselves with the stress imposed by training.
Secondary compensation injuries. We have all heard stories of pros injuring one part of their body, continuing to ride and subsequently damaging other parts of their body as it compensates for the original injury. With pretty much nothing to do all day and my lower body relatively unscathed, I found myself uncharacteristically thrilled about the prospect of indoor cycling in September! Now that I’m able to haul myself onto the trainer for short spins, my upper body is leaning to the left from riding one-handed all the time, placing a huge amount of stress on my left shoulder/arm and also my back. Moral of the story – do not underestimate the initial injury and make sure you get it taken care of!
The importance of attitude. I’ve had no end of acquaintances remark on how positive I’ve been about this needless accident. It really does come down to your own choice in how you respond to a situation, and while I haven’t done a literature search on it, I’m pretty confident the bulk of research would conclude that “positive” people recover faster than “negative” individuals. Besides any physiological differences in immune function, the other big factor would be the size and strength of the support network surrounding happy and optimistic people. So with that in mind, thanks to all the Toolbox readers for writing to cheer me up!

The Plan
As we’ve also repeatedly discussed in Toolbox, every case is individual, and this applies not just to training but also to recovery from injury. Time of year, nature and localization of injury all contribute to make each injury unique.

• For me, the accident happened at a relatively “good” time of the year in that it doesn’t interfere greatly with any of my cycling goals. Essentially, it has meant an earlier start to my off-season, but there’s no rush to build back up for a rapidly-approaching goal like Brian Walton had with the Olympics. Therefore, my main short-term goals will be to maintain easy workouts to ward off major weight gain – especially difficult with my mom coming from Vancouver to help out and determined to feed me back to health!
• With the injury, the approaching off-season, and my primary bike being a write-off, it’s a good opportunity to go for a complete bike fit from a “clean slate.” To do that, I’ll be visiting the gang at Cadence Cycling for a thorough bike fit in October to assess any biomechanical consequences of my injury and also to find the optimal fit for my new ride (keep it tuned here for the full bike-fit report).
• As my lower body is relatively unscathed, there are fortunately not too many impediments, besides comfort of the shoulder and potential injury from riding one-handed, for getting back onto the trainer. Therefore, I have been striving to maintain a modicum of activity by doing 30 min of easy riding daily. To minimize strain, I’ve been using my mountain bike with front shocks and slick tires. I will also be mainly using this setup initially on the road.

I’ll report on my progress and other lessons learned coming up as I aim to get back up to fitness and back out onto the road (just in time for a long Canadian winter!). Thanks again to all for writing to cheer me up!


About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is on sick leave from Dalhousie University, therefore effectively extending his sabbatical leave from last year! Besides getting back onto the bike, his other big goal is to rehab his nagging and pointing finger. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

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