1. Remain active. One of the worst things you can do when you get injured is to completely stop all physical activity. You may need to rest the injured area, and/or work it gently (emphasis on gently, not to the point where you get reinjured). If your injury allows you to ride—but not hard or on any hilly terrain— then the first and best choice is to either ride your bike on a stationary trainer or attend a spinning class, where you can control the intensity and duration of the workout.
If you use a spinning bike, spin at a high cadence with very light resistance. On your own bike on a trainer, keep the bike in the small chain ring and pedal in a very easy gear. If riding is not an option, then the following list of activities will help you maintain a base level of fitness and muscle strength—depending on your injury and what muscles and body parts you’re still able to use:
Elliptical Machine. These machines are a wonderful cross-training tool when riding isn’t an option. Elliptical machines allow your body to develop and maintain quadricep, hamstring and gluteal strength, while at the same time challenging your cardiovascular system. You can set the amount of tension you require. During the time you can’t cycle, select low levels of resistance, and work instead with a higher cadence.
Rowing Machine. These machines are also a good alternative to riding. A rowing machine develops strength, power and aerobic endurance all at the same time. Most people think rowing is an upper body activity, but proper rowing technique uses the legs. The arms are secondary. The explosive leg power comes into play during the drive phase (pulling back motion) of rowing. Rowing also allows you to set the resistance according to how much tension you are able to work against.
Cross-country skiing. This is a fabulous cross-training activity if you are injured during the winter months. Cross-country skiing challenges the same muscles as cycling, as well as developing and maintaining good cardiovascular conditioning.
Power Yoga. Depending on the type of injury, this vigorous form of yoga can be helpful to an injured cyclist. It develops leg and core strength—both of which are necessary for a cyclist—while offering some cardiovascular fitness benefits. Yoga also strengthens the breathing pathways by promoting diaphragmatic breathing (lower belly), which is deeper and easier to sustain than upper chest breathing.
2. Modify your riding schedule when you return to training. Methodically build in time and intensity to your riding schedule.
When you’ve been given the green light to return to cycling, it’s important that you return at a very measured pace. Here is a suggested two-month schedule:
Weeks 1 & 2
3 x 30 minutes – Keep the intensity light to moderate. No intervals, no tempo, no power sessions.
Weeks 3 & 4
3 x 45 minutes – Keep the intensity light for week three and moderate for week four. No intervals, no tempos and no power sessions. Depending on how you feel during weeks 3 and 4, you could start to work on gradually increasing into slightly harder gears.
Weeks 5 & 6
1 x 60 minutes – Keep the intensity moderate and 3 x 45 minutes at moderate intensity. No intervals, no tempos and no power sessions. During weeks 5 and 6 you can add some aerobic intervals with moderate intensity. For example:
10 min warm up
2 x 20 minutes @ 75% MHR (2 min rest in between)
10 min cool down.
Weeks 7 & 8
4 x 60 minutes, adding some higher intensity workouts with one workout. And 3 x 60 minutes at moderate intensity. Depending on how you feel, short intervals could be incorporated in weeks 7 and 8, but I recommend staying away from longer sustained tempo and short maximum power sessions during these weeks.
3. Pre-habilitation and/or continual rehabilitation if injury occurred. Depending on your injury you may have been given exercises and/or stretches to do while recovering. Once you get back in the saddle, it’s easy to forget about them. But to avoid being re-injured you must maintain your rehabilitation protocol.
Pre-habilitation is an additional way of not becoming reinjured. The pre-habilitation protocol involves basic strength training at home or in the gym, along with active and static stretching routines performed before and after each bike workout. Also, if after 3 to 4 weeks of harder training you aren’t taking a recovery week, now would be a good time to re-evaluate your training schedule and insert one week of active recovery into it.
A recovery week involves decreasing your workout time by a minimum of 10% up to a maximum of 20%, while maintaining the same intensity. Doing that promotes better and quicker recovery of the body—not just on a muscular level but on a tissue and cellular level—and it prevents burnout, overtraining and staleness.
4. Manage the mental and emotional elements associated with being out of the saddle. An injury or illness that sidelines you for any length of time can be hard emotionally and mentally. All exercise releases good endorphins. When we have to stop riding, the release of these endorphins is slowed considerably. That can make us agitated, irritable and even depressed.
When you’re not cycling, do anything you can to stimulate blood flow to the muscles and the brain to help counteract the negative effects of not working out. Even going for a short walk can help. If an illness has kept you out of the saddle and you can’t do anything at all, some daily sunshine and deep breathing exercises or meditation can do wonders for your emotional and mental health.
Once you’re back on the bike it’s important to manage your expectations about how long it will take you to get up to speed. Doing too much too soon could lead to re-injury or a relapse of the illness you’re recovering from. For a smooth and problem-free transition back into a consistent riding schedule keep all expectations in check.
5. Nutrition to foster the recovery process either from an injury or from an illness. A diet that is well-balanced is important, regardless of injury or illness. But when you’ve been laid low the body works much harder to overcome the illness or repair the injury. That means it requires good foods to heal. Protein, healthy fats and dark green leafy vegetables are especially important. Also, a diet high in monosaturated fats and omega-3 fats is anti-inflammatory and will support continued healing.
Supplementing with amino acids can stimulate healing during recovery and post-injury. Seek advice from a naturopathic doctor about what amino acids and dosages are appropriate for you. On a very basic level, doubling your Vitamin C per day for 2 to 4 weeks post-injury is a good place to start. Chances are if you were already eating well when you got injured or sick, you’ll heal quicker and be able to maintain your weight, putting you in a much better position to regain your original form once your body has fully recovered.
If you’ve been injured or ill for some time, I hope the above information can help you regain your fitness and your strength.
Diane Stibbard is a coach, personal trainer and two-time Canadian Duathlete of the Year. She writes for www.WomensCycling.ca, which contributes the Women on Wheels column that runs occasionally in RBR Newsletter.
Linda Tersegno says
Great article Diane. And especially appreciate that you included the mental and emotional aspects of recovery.
My friend suffered a severe brain injury in mid-July after her bike tire got into a road crack going about 14-15 mph and crashed. 2 weeks in an induced coma, etc. Now she wants to bike outdoors again for 5-10 miles on a flat surface. . Most of us in her cycling group feel it is a mistake due to her loss of balance. If she ever crashes again & hits her head it might be permanent injury. There’s more to this story but my overall question however is if you know of any online support group or coach for athletes recovering from a brain / head injury. She is very lonely & depressed right now.