By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
I know, I’ve been there: You fell off your bike, slid down the road and left an awful lot of your skin behind. Nothing is broken, and the only structural rips are in your formerly brand-new kit, but a whole lot of things are red, raw, and oozing. After checking your vital signs and the condition of your bicycle–in either order–your next question is about when you can get back to training and forget that this ever happened.
In January of 2017, shortly after my retirement from professional racing, I told my friend, Lindsay, that I wanted this to be the year I didn’t crash my bike once. Aided–though by no means assured–by the fact I mostly ride my commuter bike these days, my no-crash streak is still going. Nonetheless, I carry a lot of crash-memory from my career. When any medical professional sees my back, their first question is about when I got my spinal surgery. The answer is never, but that I did once do a perfect somersault down a road in Italy that resulted in an identical scar on each and every vertebra.
So, with that comforting level of expertise, here is my best collection of post-crash advice to get you out there and healthy as soon as possible.
Focus on sleep
Whether it’s a tough workout, an illness, or a crash, your body needs rest to recover from stress and build back up to full strength. Get as much sleep as possible. I’d recommend sleeping on old sheets for the first few nights to avoid adding insult to injury as you inevitably wake up glued to your bedding. It’s admittedly tough to sleep when you are uncomfortable and keep rolling over on your wounds, so if possible try to get to bed a bit early to make up for decreased sleep quality.
Eat for recovery
If your crash forces you to take a break or back off your scheduled workouts, it can be tempting to dial back your caloric intake to match your lower activity level. However, your body needs additional nutrition and energy to rebuild, so post-crash isn’t the time to restrict calories. If you do continue to be active –perhaps if you crash in the middle of a stage race, or if your injuries aren’t so severe to force you off your bike – be sure to eat a bit extra to allow for healing on top of your training load. My coach, Dean Golich, always used to remind me to eat an extra serving of protein each day in the weeks after a crash. Protein is a necessary macronutrient for building (or rebuilding) muscles and bones, so his advice – as usual – was spot on.
Take Care of Yourself
This is a great time to relax and practice some good self-care. Get a massage if your schedule allows, or try some gentle stretching and range of motion movement if it doesn’t. Move slowly. Watch a movie or read a book. In the same way you would take extra rest to recover properly from the flu, be ready and willing to indulge in a bit of extra couch time after a crash – your body is working hard to recover in ways that you can’t necessarily see, and pushing too hard will slow your return to full strength.
Take good care of your skin
After a crash, most doctors advised me to keep the wound moist and covered – but do try to give it some time to breathe in the air if you can during a time of day that it isn’t likely to get dirty or contaminated. Try to keep fresh wounds and patches of new skin covered when you are out in the sun in order to keep them from scarring too badly.
Keep moving – slowly
In some cases you can ride again right away, but do be mindful of the fact recovery is your top priority. When I crashed during a stage race, Coach Dean would often advise me to put my bike on a stationary trainer and spin a bit, either that evening or the next morning, to keep my body from tightening up before the next stage. Sometimes movement can help you feel better, but if you don’t have an immediate need for performance consider giving your body a day or two to heal before you stress it further.
Ride the trainer
I am a big advocate for the stationary trainer in general after a big crash. It’s easy to get on and spin lightly for a half-an-hour to test how your body feels. If something starts to hurt, you can stop immediately rather than having to limp back home. You’re less likely to feel the need to hammer to keep up with your friends, and you are far less likely to push the distance with “just another ten minutes promises!” when your main entertainment is a blank wall. Continue to pay attention to your body as you resume activity. Small aches and pains have an irritating tendency to become chronic when ignored.
Build your strength
Consider your crash an opportunity to come back stronger. This advice is more common for those who have suffered an overuse injury, but any forced pause is a great opportunity to reset your habits. In my observation, having greater core and upper body strength can help make us more resilient to crashes (even if only because there is muscle to pad delicate bones!) If there is any structural weakness you’ve been meaning to address, this would be a great time to focus on strength and stability work while you dial back the intensity of your traditional training.
Crashing is a part of riding bikes, right from the day we take the training wheels off of our first two-wheeler. It isn’t fun, but if you slow down, take care of yourself, and pay attention to your body’s needs, you will often be back to full strength–with your bedsheets out of danger–before you know it.