How to come back from injuries as a Masters Athlete
By PCG Elite/Master Coach Gordon Paulson
In cycling, things can change suddenly. A moment’s inattention, a touch of wheels, and the next thing you know, you’re heading for the ground, and unfortunately sometimes the ER. It makes no difference whether you ride road bikes, mountain bikes, or a commuter bike. Accidents aren’t limited to riders who do criteriums. So far this summer, I’ve seen injury producing accidents in easy rides and hard racing, in road races, mountain bike races, time trials, criteriums, group rides for fun, challenge rides, training rides…and the list can go on and on. Face it, injuries from accidents can happen to anyone who rides a bike.
“Coming back from injuries is part of being a bike racer, because no matter what level racer you are, you’re virtually guaranteed to get hurt at some point.” ~ Jim Rutberg, Guidelines for Returning to Training After an Injury (TrainingPeaks).
The bad news is that as a Masters athlete we are more likely to have an accident, and when accidents happen to us, more likely to get injured. Statistically, older athletes are much more likely to injure themselves than younger athletes who are doing the same sport. When injured, a Masters athlete is more likely to experience a longer recovery time. “In general terms, a younger person will heal from injury more quickly than an older subject with a similar injury; the recovery rate is directly related to the speed with which the body can grow new cells to repair itself. Various sports science studies have illustrated that an injured athlete of age 45 and over will recover at a rate of between 15% and 18% slower than a similarly injured 30-year-old person.” ~ Age-Related Response to Injury, (World of Sports Science)
Management and treatment of athletic injury must take the athlete’s age into account. With odds like these, it’s best to plan ahead. While training your bike skills to reduce the chance of an accident is essential, you should also prepare a plan in the event you unfortunately get injured from an accident.
Tip 1: Even before an injury occurs, you can aid your recovery by accepting that injury is possible, and spending time reconciling yourself to this fact. This frees you up to think through a healthy approach to recovery.
Tip 2: Following an injury, begin your recovery as if you are lost in the woods.
Step 1: Stop and Think - Take Stock- Hold Your Horses - Settle Down! Panic doesn’t help. Don’t dwell on how this is messing up your plans to win the Wednesday Night World Championships. Rushing in to “Recovery” will only lead to a longer recovery period or, worse yet, an exacerbation of the injury.
Step 2: Take an inventory. Be honest. What’s injured, and what’s not injured? Accept that you will need to step back a bit from your preinjury physical performance capability, and accept that it’s not the ‘end of the world.’ There may be other things you can do that help your overall fitness and help keep you from sliding toward ‘detrained.’ For example, consider following through with that core strength routine that you never seem to have enough time for, or start that nutritionally healthy eating that you always meant to do.
Step 3: Gather information… Get the facts. For example, depending on location of fracture, severity of the break, and age and nutritional status, average healing time for bone fractures is 6-8 weeks. Ligaments in the knee don't take that long to heal. Minor damage will heal within 7 to 10 days. More severe damage can take three weeks, and up to six weeks to be fully strong and completely back to normal. Are there things you can do to maintain fitness using uninjured body parts, for example, swimming?
Step 4: Formulate a Plan. Find care providers who work with athletes. Ideally, find folks who share your passion for the sport. They will appreciate that you place a priority on returning to your sport as quickly as possible. Plan your recovery as carefully as you would plan training for your “A” Race. This is where an experienced coach can really make a difference. A coach may have seen many injuries among athletes, and may have even experienced some his or herself. A coach’s ability to know what needs to be done, and how long recovery will take, can be reassuring and help you stay on track.
Step 5: Be Patient. If you were lost in the wilderness, the best advice would be ‘stay put and wait for help to come.’ The post-injury parallel is give the healing process time to work its magic. Be patient. Healing takes time. Time is the most important component of recovery. Accept that and don’t expect to hurry the process.
Tip 3: To overcome the likely mental challenges from an injury that disrupts training, focus on the positives. Establish goals. Set priorities. Develop a realistic timeline. Focus on intermediate goals for recovery. Set yourself up for some early ‘wins.’ It helps to think about all the other athletes you know, or know of, who have had similar bad luck and have come back even stronger.
Tip 4: Commit 100% to recovery. Make recovery your ‘training plan.’ Get organized, follow the plan persistently and diligently. Dedicate the same level of commitment to recovery that you brought to your performance training.
Tip 5: Never Quit. Avoid the ‘slippery slope’ of waiting to get better and, consequently, not taking a proactive role in your recovery. Trying to force an early recovery can be a bad thing, but equally dangerous is becoming ‘resigned’ to your fate. Believe in the plan, and have patience. Just as patience is a powerful resource as you train to improve, patience can be indispensable for a full and satisfactory recovery.
Injuries that prevent athletes from training and competing are an unfortunate part of the sport of cycling. Experiencing an injury does not, however, signal the end of either. An injury may delay some accomplishments, but they should only be a temporary inconvenience. As the saying goes, ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger.’ Get stronger.