Coach’s Column with Sarah Kaufmann: Returning To The Bike After Injury? Here’s How It’s Done

Question: I broke my leg in a bad crash late this summer and am just starting to ride again.  How do I start getting back into race shape?  I’d like to do endurance races again next season but don’t know if that’s an unrealistic goal.

Answer: First, endurance racing next season is not unrealistic! You actually picked a great time to break your leg (only half kidding). If there is ever a good time for an injury, it is late in the race season. I normally recommend that my athletes take two to four weeks off the bike when the season comes to a close. Your forced rest works this in and once you are cleared to ride again, you can begin base training through the winter. Depending on when your first goal events are next year (and what your winter climate is like), November/December is a great time to begin riding again and ease back into some structured training.

Once you are cleared to ride, you should begin with very light steady riding. You may want to do this on the road. Stick mainly to endurance pace or lower, which is about a 4 or 5 out of a 10 for your rate of perceived effort. Be honest with yourself about this and resist the urge to push harder. If you train with power or heart rate, be aware that HR will be spiky and high in general and your pre-injury power zones are going to be too high for the moment, as well. This may also mean that you need to avoid riding with your friends who insist they will ride easy but always hammer – we all have those friends! After several weeks of unstructured endurance pace training, move into some steady state higher effort endurance pace efforts; i.e. instead of just cruising with endurance pace as your ceiling, try holding middle to upper endurance for 20-60 minute efforts (building these up over time).

Your timeline for building back an endurance base will depend a lot on your level of fitness at the time of your injury and what, if any, activity you were able to do during your recovery. But more than likely, after three to five weeks of structured training at mainly endurance pace, followed by a week of lighter riding and active recovery, you can begin adding back in some tempo and low-end threshold efforts.

As your goal is returning to endurance racing, tempo work will be your best bet for redeveloping your aerobic base. Tempo work results in many of the same physiological adaptations as threshold training but because it is at a lower intensity, you can train at tempo with significantly higher volume than threshold. Tempo efforts should feel like a 6 or 7 out of 10 RPE. Benefits of tempo training include increased plasma and stroke volume, increased mitochondrial density (mitochondria are the part of cells that create energy from fuel), improved lactate buffering (resulting in improved lactate threshold), and increased muscle capillarization (resulting in more blood flow to working muscles), among others. As with any periodized training plan, as you get closer to your event, your training should include more threshold, VO2, and anaerobic efforts. But in the initial phase after your return from injury, your focus should be on aerobic base building, so tempo work should make up the majority of your hard training..

Tempo workouts could include rolling terrain-based efforts of five to ten minutes, with equal or longer recovery at endurance pace. Keep total time at tempo to 40 minutes initially, working up to an hour. You can also do more structured intervals working up to a total of an hour at tempo (i.e. 6 x 10’; 4 x 15’; 3 x 20’). Despite the fact that tempo work can be done at a higher volume than threshold, it is still very demanding training. Make sure you are well rested and adequately fueled and hydrated for these workouts. You can begin with one to two tempo workouts per week, working up to three to four over time.

Because my approach to training and racing is a holistic one, it feels like an omission not to cover points regarding nutrition, core exercises, and the mental aspects of returning from injury. Without too much detail on those points, here are a few basics…

Sometimes a focus on nutrition slips when we can’t train. It is easy to self-medicate with treats. But remember that your body needs the highest quality building blocks to create new bone. Even after you have been cleared to ride, bone growth is still occurring. Homemade bone broth is one of the best things you can give yourself to support bone growth. I like this recipe. Aside from that, whole foods; fruits, vegetables, high quality animal protein and healthy fats will be the most supportive in recovery. Keep your focus on nutrient density.

Rebuilding some core strength will serve you well as you transition back into regular bike training. After all of the time off, the muscles that support bike posture will be weakened. If your fracture is healed enough that you are riding regularly, you should have no problem getting back to a regular core strength routine. Make sure you listen to your body and if certain movements give you pain at your fracture site, wait on those.

In addition to the physical stress of injury, it is important to acknowledge and respect the mental strain and other peripheral damage. While an injury does provide some forced rest, your body has been through a major trauma. My explanation above, indicating that the forced rest is convenient, is also simplistic. Though you were off the bike, your body wasn’t really resting during your down time. Healing broken bones is demanding and exhausting work. You may be frustrated at the fitness you have lost when you begin riding again. Let it ride (pun intended). It will come around. Be patient and try to enjoy the process of getting your fitness back.

Trauma like broken bones can also have a strong psychological impact. It may feel like a personal violation to be damaged by a severe injury. Respect the emotional pain caused by your injury. Personal story; I was hit by a car a couple of years ago and sustained several broken bones. About a month after the accident, a good friend told me to remember these things, ‘be patient with yourself and kind to yourself.’ I began crying. Do not discount the pent up frustration and expectations. They are there bubbling under the surface and acknowledging them is a crucial part of the healing process.
Good luck with your recovery and with your season next year – you can come back stronger!

Sarah Kaufmann is a USAC Level II coach under the PLAN7 Endurance Coaching brand. She is a member of the Stan’s NoTubes Women’s Elite Mountain Bike Team and has been racing mountain bikes at the professional level since 2008. Sarah is based in Park City, UT.