Return from Injury: OR to Olympics
For all athletes, nothing is worse to your goals and morale than an injury. You spent all that time training only to see your goal taken away by a freak accident. But all need not be lost, and smart planning and determination can still lead to your best performance.
By Brian Walton
With our Toolbox Editor stuck in a La-Z-Boy eating extra ice cream – hoping that the calcium will help his bones heal from his recent break and enter into the back of a VW Golf, I thought it would be instructive to examine my own case study of returning from my most severe racing injury to my most exceptional racing performance ever – in the span of two months.
Springtime in Europe
In the spring of 1996 I was riding in Europe racing the early Belgium semi classics (Harlebeke, Kurne-Brussells-Kurne) and then onto the twelve day Tour of Neidersachsen in Germany. Over the preceding winter, I had put in a significant volume of training to prepare myself for the biggest year of my cycling career. My team, Saturn, used these races as preparation for the USPRO Champs and Olympics later that summer.
Everyday I was treated to 35 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and either rain or snow flurries. Unfortunately, steady cold temperatures + ever present wetness + volumes of high intensity = the PERFECT recipe for knee injury. Instead of basking in glory and brimming with confidence after completing such a heavy block of training and racing, I found myself unceremoniously headed back to Vancouver with a swollen knee and injured ego. What followed in the next two months changed not only the course of my career but also life, and the perspective I can share with my athletes.
Mother Knows Best
After abandoning the Tour of Neidersachsen in the first week, I naturally began to think I was one of the weakest athletes in pro peloton and worse yet, a quitter. While at home I went through the traditional process of seeing my doctor, trying some rest and anti-inflammatory drugs. It just wasn’t working and I didn’t see how we were going to solve the problem. My knee still hurt and I didn’t know what to do!
Sometimes answers come from the most unlikely places. While at Sunday dinner, my mother suggested I “get out of town” and visit Saturn Team doctor, Dr. Tom Breen at the University of Massachusetts, near Boston. Within hours of landing, I had an MRI.
Although Tom already knew my fate, he let me think I was going through a standard process. I had worked with Tom for years and after describing my situation to him, he scheduled me for surgery. Knowing I would be overwhelmed by the thought of going under the knife just after setting foot in New England, Tom scheduled the MRI to give me time to get used to the idea of surgery as an option.
Moral #1: identify the problem/Injury and the cause!
b. Poor biomechanics
d. Physical Weakness? Leg length discrepancy, muscle imbalance etc.
My recovery off the bike lasted less than two days. The program we had mapped out was “structured-unstructuredness”. Our plan the first day was to ride for 5 minutes. I managed 5 km/h with my swollen knee! Yup 5 km/h. Oh yeah, I was going to tear it up in two months at the Olympics! To further complicate matters, the Canadian Cycling Association was going to make me go to Olympic Trials to qualify for the Atlanta Games. This really rattled my confidence; while it’s true I was recovering from knee surgery, less than 18 months earlier I had personally qualified the two Canadian Olympic Team spots by winning two gold medals at the Pan American Games!
In the end, I had less than three weeks to prepare. I was however, healing quickly and managed two 10 min. (at 10 km/h, mind you) workouts on the second day! Day three, two 15 min. workouts and on the fourth day I completed a full hour of training, outside! Now I’m not going to kid you, the knee hurt and I asked Tom if I would injure it if I pushed it. He told me that if it wasn’t injured now I wouldn’t do any damage. That’s all I needed to hear. We took a day off and then it was back to the velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania to be with my personal coach.
Moral #2: Set a strategy to heal/recover?
a. Have team support (Family, doctor, coach, physiotherapist)
b. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Stay positive. Someone is always worse off (like our Toolbox Editor)!
Strength in Renewal
My personal coach was a tough-as-nails Eastern Bloc hard-head by the name of Mirek Mazur. We just clicked – he was a stubborn mule just like me! After the injury he couldn’t give me enough intervals. During the month before the Olympics I was training three times per day Monday through Friday and twice on the weekend to make nineteen workouts a week. A typical day during the week would start out with 30 minutes on the rollers before breakfast, then a 1.5-2 h track workout and then 1.5-2.5 h group ride on the road. The weekend was my time off the rollers and usually I hit an East Coast criterium and followed it up with a recovery ride.
Moral #3: Revamp your goals and your training program to reflect the changes.
a. Don’t rush it. You must build back up constructively. Work on your weaknesses. No shortcuts.
b. Don’t gain weight during your time off. This will just slow down the recovery process.
c. Adjust plan and set new goals.
Knowledge in your Mistakes
I finished my training with a quick 50 mile local road race in Lititz, Pennsylvania before leaving for Atlanta the next day. The biggest difference going into my second Olympics was the knowledge I gained from the mistakes I made at my first Olympics in Seoul. I tell my athletes, “It’s OK to make mistakes, we all do. This is when we learn. Now just make them once and there won’t be a problem!”
This time around for Atlanta I had the luxury of preparing how my coach and I saw fit. Mirek and I were able to fine tune the training as I got comfortable on the new track. On July 28, 1996, I was ready to go and had the ride of my life. With the strong support team with which I had surrounded myself and Mirek’s great coaching, I was in superlative physical and mental form. After earning the silver medal in the points race, Mirek described the training and said he was, “either going to kill me, OR…”. He never finished the statement but, thank goodness there was an “or”!
Overall, it may sound as if it was a very straightforward recovery from injury, but it only turned out that way because of a number of factors. I had an excellent support team of relatives, friends, medical support, and coaches. They were wise enough to help me see what I needed to do, and ensured that I did not panic or let paranoia get a hold of me. I listened to my doctors, and they were smart enough to let me know only what I needed to know at such a critical time. I had a terrific coach who, at the same time as listening to me and empathizing with me, also kept me steered in the right direction and no prisoners in his approach to achieving our goal.
Cycling had almost been taken away from me and it wasn’t until that time that I truly realized how much I love this sport. This was the reason I was able to push myself beyond my limits and come back from my first significant injury to my top performance ever.
In the meantime, go easy on the ice cream Stephen, and hopefully you’ll be back on the trainer and the road really soon!
Brian Walton has a uniquely well-rounded perspective on training and coaching. He was one of the top Canadian riders of the 80s and 90s, riding as a pro with 7-Eleven, Motorola, and Saturn, and winning the 1989 Milk Race and silver in the 1996 Olympic Points Race. He then became the DS and coach for Team Snow Valley, turning it into the top Elite Men’s team in the USA. He is currently the Director of Performance for Cadence Cycling in Philadelphia, and can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].
Cadence Cycling website.