Essay: On Injury Empathy
Photo courtesy Mike Maney Photography. Be sure to check out his work; he is a fellow cyclist in the Bucks County cycling community with multiple KOMs to his name.
I now understand athletes when they cite a lack of body confidence when returning from an injury. I have not been cleared to ride at regular pace due to lingering back pain. The time off the bike has been attributed to many things, one of which involves the concern of prolonging the issue.
Any time I went really hard on the bike the past few years I struggled to stand up straight the moment I dismounted it. I chalked it up to a few things: my lack of linear movement after retiring from hockey, my focus on entirely bike riding, my inability to stand down during bike fits, and a lot of negligence to the issue at hand. That is, I ignored something small that inflamed to nearly debilitating. This is a cautionary article.
Several nights in the last year I was awakened by tightness on the outside of my hips. No doubt these were the skating muscles abandoned so long ago crying out for one more night of hockey. I often wondered how much damage I would do trying to play one more game in between the pipes. Probably a lot is the answer. I ignored those nights and ignored the increasing regularity.
As my schedule tightened up over the last decade I found myself whittling activities away and prioritizing road cycling. Since hockey disbanded that freed up time. Running on the crowned roads made my knees and hip joints hurt so I stopped. Pursuing kayaking and hiking was a potential path but prohibitive based on the amount of traveling needed. I found immense enjoyment in one hour of cycling compared to all those other endeavors. I overlooked the common sense interrogation of whether my body would willingly follow.
As I increased my racing schedule I updated my bike fit. Being that I have been in the bike industry for ten years at various bike shops, I manipulated my answers to justify a fit that came close to slamming the stem and having a drop. I would only ask about appropriate seat height (which never changes so there’s that). I wanted to look pro. I’ll be damned to ever utter, “Life’s too short to ride with back pain.”
I remembered the first time I experienced this sort of back pain. It was during a hockey game. I had to stay in my stance for half of the game so as to not give away my injury. Luckily play stayed away from me but skating around definitely hurt. The fact it happened during hockey led me to think it was hockey related. Then it happened after bike rides and I’d say, “That damned hockey injury!” Despite nearly half a decade of being off ice, I still blame the discomfort on hockey until recently.
According to a recent Bicycling magazine article, 45% of pro cyclists report back pain as one of the main issues affecting performance. I am not pro but If I’m looking for reasons to suffer through back pain, listening to pros – and not doctors – is where my mind has gone up to this point. Back pain was part of racing I told myself. Furthermore, I felt just fine riding my bike; it was the dismount and afterward that caused distress.
After nearly two weeks of walking bent over my right hip, I relented and saw someone about the issue. All I wanted was the knot in my lower back to let go. I tried every possible remedy to avoid seeing a specialist. I did not want to admit I had a problem. Let’s not forget pros have masseuses to work these things out. I have two dogs that hardly pose as helpful in times like this.
I can empathize with athletes who have gotten injured and become reticent to return to the sport they know and love. Days went by – weeks even – and I avoided the bike. It would mist in the morning and I would dismiss any potential ride on account of moisture. Too much wind could lead to overexertion injury so keep the bike stowed. I made excuses to avoid my bike. I was afraid to have to raise the white flag on some road and call home for the dreaded SOS. How would I write cycling articles and test out products when I was laid up on the couch with an ice pack?
The final reason I did not get on the bike was a maturation process. I did not want to undo all the progress I had made with my back. I can get out of my seat without walking like a zombie. I don’t rely on hooking my thumbs through my belt loops to apply pressure to my lower back. I did not want to get on the bike and ‘return to zero’ by riding the Trexlertown Derby only to struggle to dismount again. I had invested into my return. I want to return properly.
This article is part apology, part warning. I have not been writing as much because of this struggle to remain off the bike. There have been a few short rides at parade speed to get out but nothing at plaid speed. I now understand why some athletes pace at the entrance to their stadiums, rinks, and velodromes. There is a nervousness there that the return to action could be all for naught. That thirty minutes from now they could be laid up all over again with the same injury back at square one. Do yourself a favor: go see someone, even if it’s just for a consultation. No one should talk himself or herself out of riding for six weeks.