Injury is among the most challenging experiences you can face as a cyclist. When you're injured, you almost certainly can't ride in the way to which you've become accustomed--and you're often not able to ride at all. If you were injured in a crash, your mental fitness may have taken a hit; perhaps a big one. While you're not riding, your physical fitness may be decreasing, and you may be starting to lose confidence in yourself as a rider as well. And if all that isn't enough, nobody can reliably foretell the path and likelihood of your recovery.
What happens next? (Please don't answer, "I reach for [insert vice here].")
Do you become depressed, unmotivated and down on cycling? Do you rush frantically to get back on the bike and your previous level of performance? The cyclist with sufficient mental training can navigate between these two extremes, avoid unhealthy vices, and manage the recovery process effectively. How? As with so much in life, living skillfully with injury begins with self-awareness and, most importantly, knowing the forces that can push you toward the extremes.
Step 1: Understand the Effects of Your Injury
To begin to uncover how the injury is affecting you, some specific questions you can ask yourself are:
- What thoughts are you having about the injury, about cycling, about yourself?
- What emotions are coming up? To what extent are you keeping them to yourself, leaking them onto other people, or intentionally sharing them with others?
- How about sensations--pain, weakness, numbness, tensing, spasms?
- Which of your behaviors seem to be influenced by the injury? How are those behaviors affecting your view of yourself and your relationships with other people?
Particularly if you're sad, angry, or scared at times, it may be helpful to ask yourself this question: What have I lost, even if the loss seems temporary?
You may have lost power, function, and skill. You may have lost a significant source of fun, exercise, and challenge. Go a bit deeper: You may have lost a significant source of social contact, stress/anxiety reduction and life balance. Go deeper still: You may have lost hope for your recovery, or you may have lost a significant source of meaning and purpose in your life. And finally, you may have lost a big part of your identity.
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross theorized in the late 1960's that, when confronted with our impending death, we have a characteristic response: the Five Stages of Grief. The stages, which can be traveled in any order and sometimes repeated, are Denial, Anger, Bargaining ("Just let me live until..."), Depression and Acceptance. It was later observed that Kubler-Ross' model seems to encapsulate the experience of many other kinds of loss.
I'm not suggesting that losing your cycling, even permanently, is likely to have the same effects on you as life-threatening illness or the death of a loved one. However, given that your injury has resulted in a sense of loss--and perhaps, as noted above, a sense of loss that cuts quite deeply--truly accepting what's happened may accelerate your recovery. In other words, if you're stuck in one of the other stages, your recovery from injury could be stuck. What might this look like?
- Denial: "It's not that bad." "I'm fine." "I'm still racing tomorrow." "It's just a flesh wound."
- Anger: Repeatedly becoming angry with unusual intensity, frequency, or provocation. Could be anger directed toward self, others, pets, lawn furniture...
- Bargaining: "Coach, just let me do this one race." "If I do this one double century, I'll rest for the next seven days afterwards." "Doc, couldn't you just give me some pain pills?"
- Depression: Sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, irritability, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, loss of libido, loss of enjoyment, over- or under-sleeping, anxiety, inability to concentrate, lowered self-esteem.
Acknowledging and accepting what you've lost doesn't preclude working to get it back. But the more clear-eyed and clear-headed you are about what you've lost, the less likely you'll be to fill that space with something unhealthy.