The Stubborn Athlete’s Guide to Injuries

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By Mara Abbott,
2016 Olympian, CTS Athlete, and CTS Contributing Editor

At the 2016 Redlands Classic I went down hard, and came back up with a cracked collarbone. After 10 years of professional cycling it was my first broken bone. However, when I tried explaining my ensuing fear and uncertainty, people were duly polite, but it was tough for anyone to see my hairline-fracture-no-surgery-needed with much sympathy. A more serious injury would come soon enough. Just a few months later, I retired from professional cycling and attempted to immediately turn myself into a competitive runner. With quads built from steel, lungs forged of iron, and stabilizing tissues apparently made with Tinker Toys, I have since learned a thing or two about the process of hurting myself – and recovering.

With any injury, the first question arises:

What happened?

Sometimes overuse, sometimes trauma. Sometimes the problem is sports-related, but not always; one college roommate tore her ACL when she slipped at a fraternity house. Examining the causes of your injury can be highly uncomfortable, but unless you are willing to dive into what went wrong, you will face much higher odds of repeat occurrences. (Roommate: “It was so stupid! I’ve fallen there before!”).

Go to see a good doctor. Giving that advice is a big deal for me, as I find spending money unnecessarily to be the one thing worse than admitting physical vulnerability. I know you are smart and Google is powerful, but weigh the price of consulting a professional who has seen your specific injury in person against the opportunity cost of time spent immersed in the doom foretold by internet message boards. The costs of that office visit and x-rays start to look pretty good.

The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can stop hurting and start healing. In the (unlikely) event they tell you to just walk it off, that you’re fine, you are at least spared a few weeks of low-grade anxiety. Anxiety builds up, and let me tell you – a few hours with a therapist will set your wallet back a lot more than a visit to the orthopedist.

What now?

Upsettingly little. There are of course, specific exercises and healing habits you will be assigned, but largely, this is a time of practicing patience and equanimity in the face of uncertainty – both of which are of course infinitely harder than going on a five-hour training ride, into a headwind, uphill both ways.

Consider also: Perhaps it was a desire to move more quickly, whether through a training phase or just that one corner, which led you here. Honing patience might be the best long-term recovery strategy of all.

My first injury in the running world was a femoral neck stress fracture. This – for cyclists who may not know – hurts a whole lot. Unfortunately, due to a conversation at our first rehab appointment, I made the executive decision that my new physical therapist, in spite of the fact that he was a leader at the clinic, had no idea what he was doing. I therefore ignored the glute strengthening and stabilizing exercises he prescribed for me. Accordingly, as I got back to running my knees got sore because of… weak glutes! So, when I say ‘find a good doctor’, remember that a doctor’s wisdom is only powerful when you trust it.

Take your time. Just a few weeks ago I bragged to a trainer at my gym that my knee hardly hurt anymore, except for when I jumped up and down on one leg.

“Why are you jumping on one leg?” he asked.

“To see… if my knee still hurts…?”

I’m still practicing, too.

What next?

Sometimes the severity of an injury dictates your future options. Forced transitions are frightening, and we each have to pass through them in our own time. Remember: life’s pathways will shift with injury, but never disappear. Sometimes, an injury creates a pause that allows us to realize it’s time for a change, regardless of prognosis. Over time, hard physical work, endorphins, and the inertia of constantly working toward goals are all spectacularly effective at numbing emotion. Introspection might be more uncomfortable than sore joints, but sometimes we have to let go for a bit in order to realize that a change is necessary.

2011 was a tough year for me – ultimately resulting in a year-long break from competition (back then, I fancied it a permanent move and called it “quitting”). When I look back at the months of self-doubt, fear, lack of motivation, and looming advance of an eating disorder that preceded the decision to quit, there were definitely signs I should have stopped digging the hole sooner than I did. Ultimately, it took a headfirst crash on a solo morning training ride to force the pause that gave me clarity. Concussions are never good, but in hindsight, I am grateful for that one.

Many years further down the path of personal development, while awaiting formal diagnosis on my hip fracture I called Coach Dean with an extremely creative list of potential worst-case scenarios. His reply? “No. The worst case scenario is that you don’t change.”

So what?

We don’t always choose the cards we are dealt, but we do decide how to play them. Injury forces us to face vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty – and won’t let us swim, run, ride, jump or bend away from them. I cannot ease your discomfort, but I can tell you this: Those who achieve extraordinary things – in sport and in life – must be equally strong in mind as in body. This, too, requires training.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. I am, after all, still trying to learn to run.


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Comments 10

  1. HEY, Guys ‘N GALS. Cycling all my life. Increasing Carpal Tunnel syndrome both hand. Couldn’t feel gear shift or brakes through hurting hands Finally caused me to stop cycling for a year. Got a terrific Doc to repair both hands. Recovered. Back on the road & track. Feels great to be “normal” again!

  2. At 72, my experience is that exercise fixes almost all injuries and pain issues. The trick is to get the exercise right. I have one retired PT whom I trust, all others, including doctors, having busted same. So mostly I trust my own experience. I experiment on myself and see what works.

    What works for me is to work the injury. So my back has lumbar stenosis, thin discs, and arthritic facets (MRI). What do I do? Work it until it hurts, rest it until it doesn’t, work it some more. Though when it hurts from a long bike ride, my best solution is to go to the gym, squat, hit the back machine, stiff-legged deadlifts, etc. Work it. In general, my road bike has been the best and cheapest doctor I ever had.

    Same with anything else. Knee bursitis? Why? What’s rubbing what? And thus what needs strengthening, i.e. gym work. Shoulder impingement? Hang by your hands as long and as much as you can. Etc., etc. Figure it out and take action. So far, I’ve never found rest to be a good idea. Heresy, but I never even ice. I just head for the gym, but you have to know what you’re doing.

  3. Like one of my patients said: “Getting old is not for sissies”. I am sure trust his opinion since he is 92 yo! Amazing individual.
    Maria, I am with you on the starting a “broken body” forum or discussion for shared experiences and ways to deal with issues: physical and mental.
    IMHO, the most difficult aspect of an injury is not physical but mental: how we process the pain and ultimately respond to it.

  4. THANK YOU for this sound advice. I often, no – always, preach this to my clients. So many athletes, older and younger, want to rush to the finish line. I advocate patience, balance, mindfulness and yes, a good Primary Care Physician who will know you, your habits, strengths and weaknesses.

    By the way, you are a very good writer!

  5. I would really like to hear from ‘senior’ women cyclists or athletes. There are more of us via the baby boomers’ individualism. I informally surveyed friends – cyclists- ranging from 63 to 75. They use OTC pain killers allowing them to ride, cause worn out hips, backs, you name it…would otherwise keep them from the one thing that promises to damage us less…riding.
    –The severe stenosis of neck and lower back, in combo with bulging discs up my spine…just started to hurt mildly on and moderately off….over the last 6 months despite PT assists.I’m lucky this happened now as versus when I started riding at 38 years.
    –The PTs I’ve gone to – say – don’t ride the hills..Uh, I live on a hill. Hills torque your back???
    —SO, thoughts??? Ride on until I can’t, ride with OTCs and enjoy while I can, or surgery or??
    –I’d also LIKE TO KNOW if there’s a chat room or blog for senior athletes.
    —Moving has been my true love, other than my hubby – these last 40 years of my life.
    —I don’t want to become a blob..and love the feeling of moving my body. Most broken body cyclists say: The pleasure still outweighs the pain.
    —Anyone for a broken body blog???

    1. Maria, I am a 73 year old male cyclist and a family physician. I suffered life threatening injuries when I crashed descending Mt. Evans in 2013 and would not be here if the coach I was with had not gotten an ambulance to get me to a level 1 trauma center for treatment. I suffered 10 fractured ribs, contusion and stain of my left shoulder and rotator cuff, a concussion, pulmonary contusion and ruptured spleen requiring emergency surgery and splenectomy. I had to stay off work and cycling for 6 weeks but then slowly started riding on my trainer and then outside. I took pain medications for only a short time. I think the key to my recovery was returning to cycling and moving. My shoulder and ribs still bother me at times but I just keep going. As for your chronic neck and back issues I don’t have a great answer. NSAIDS (the OTC’s you mention) must be used sparingly. The have way too many side effects to use all the time and they are potentially worse the older we get. Adequate rest and sleep is also crucial. I became semi-retired last August and have noted a decided increase in my cycling performance since then that I attribute mainly to increased rest and less stress. As Coach Dean said keep moving.

  6. Great and timely article given that I am facing similar “psychological” hurdles after a year-long effort [with surgeries] to correct two torn rotator cuffs, a torn bicep and other injuries caused by a negligent driver while riding my bike! As a rider in his mid-60’s, I have essentially lost a year on the bike due to these injuries. It feels like a more daunting challenge to get back into top form, given it took years of training to reach a pinnacle point. My mental challenge now is to remove self imposed barriers that prevent me from reaching important goals, and my CTS Coach will be instrumental in helping with this recovery plan.

    Thanks for sharing this article and Mara’s insights!

  7. Thank you, very insightful and calming. As I’ve had recent back surgery to relieve nerve compression which supposedly did the trick, in certain areas, but still do not have good function, strength or range of motion on my left leg, thus keeping me off the bike. Patience and numerous visits to Physical Therapists who all have different opinions, methods and recommendations (go figure), to hopefully avoid further surgery, has not worked yet, thus further patience, adaption, mindfulness and reality are a fact as with training, fitness and life.

  8. Wait till you get old! LOLOL Seriously, Coach Dean nailed it! Even at the ripe old age 66, his advice is still spot on!

    Starting to work with coach Corrine after 10 years of self coaching, changing and trusting has been a challenge! And the most fun I’ve had in a long time!

    Great job and thanks for sharing the journey so honestly.

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