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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.