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Expert Advice on Recovering After a Cycling Crash

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.

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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.

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Comments 17

  1. Thanks. Good article, well written. I crashed a few days ago on a turn and am still trying to recover. Broken ribs and badly bruised shoulder w/ road rash under my jersey (so a clean wound at least). It was starting to rain so I sped up in anticipation of resting after an upcoming hill climb. Never made it. Newly wet pavement is like ice, especially at intersections where cars sit and wait. Please remember that, folks. I feel stupid because, in a way, I knew that already. If it starts raining, don’t rush things – you’ll just get hurt. Better to slow down than to press on harder. You’re gonna get wet. No big deal. Water dries, but injuries need time to heal. Keep your head on straight if the weather changes. Anticipate!

  2. Ride my bike to stay fit. Got into collision with electric scooter, and went flying. Couldn’t move arm landed on then it came back. Knee swelled like a baseball, and now feels stiff. Nothing broken. How long for knee to heal so I can ride?

  3. Thanks for this. I just crashed yesterday sprinting to the finish of a crit. Tegaderm is definitely the best. Planning on a few trainer days as I’ve got a mild concussion.

  4. This has encouraged me to avoid the boxing gym, and concentrate on my core with regular movement of my bruising.
    Eat to heal.

  5. Pingback: 5 Legal and Deadly Lessons From bicycle accidents - Codeart

  6. Thanks for this. A van drove into me at a roundabout. Didn’t see me in my high viz rain jacket! I’ve got a broken rib, bruised the bone on my ankle, knee and hand. I travelled about 15ft and landed on my back so that’s no great either. I’m lucky though, they thought I’d broken my back. Thankfully I do a variety of sports including CrossFit so I’m quite muscly, which I think saved me. I started gentle spinning sat upright after a week. It’s been five weeks now and wondering when I can get back to more varied CrossFit movements? Any thoughts please?

  7. I crashed in a third world country yesterday. Unpleasant to hear one’s head go Ker Plunk! on the cement, your body hit the concrete in 3 segments, then bike shut you in. Mysterious medical treatment, muscles still burning, glad I didn’t break my neck. Will get some ice, eat higher quality protein. thanks for the good resting advice.

  8. She cut me off after running a stop while I was riding down a 4% grade hill on main rode. I still am trying to pull my helmet out of her anus.

  9. Pingback: 7 Things Cyclists, MTBers, and Triathletes Should Do When You Crash Your Bike - CTS

  10. Just what I needed to read after crashing yesterday on a wet trail and got a nasty gash followed by 6 stitches. Knee looks like a baseball it hopefully it’s just swelling. Thanks for the good reminders.

  11. I crashed with another cyclist on my way to work about 6 weeks ago. It was a fast accident so I was feeling like a pretzel for the first 2 weeks. Most of my body has healed by now but I still feel pain on the right side of my torso (right under my breast). I cannot do weight lifting as I normally could and even though the xrays say nothing is fractured or broken I still cannot return to normal. How long would this healing process usually take? Are there any movements that are recommended to do or avoid in these cases? Doctors have given me painkillers but they aren’t solving the problem, they just numb the pain. Any advice would help. Thanks

  12. Good advice and reassuring after a car pulled out and i sailed over the bonnet. I will have a scar on my face to match my old one. The worst thing, is my best bike is a right off!

  13. You failed to mention the need to cocoon (avoid excessive stimulation and exertion) in the case of a concussion, and to stay off the bike until symptoms fully resolve, usually at least a week or two. A second “hit” within 24 hours of a concussion has a 50% mortality rate (that means you die).

  14. For road rash, scrub all the dirt out of it. Yes, hurts like the devil. Paint with Povidone (doesn’t hurt). When dry, cover with Tegaderm. Leave the Tegaderm on until the skin has healed and is pink, usually a couple of weeks. Tegaderm breathes.

  15. i debated whether to read this b/c of course i’m never going to crash again.

    but i did (read it, at least). 🙂

    thanks. good stuff

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