Coping with Injury and the Long Road Back to Racing
In the latest in our series of interviews Robert Constantino sat down with teammate Ryan McGarrity to discuss the long, and at times painful, road back from a major injury.
Q: How long have you been physically active and how much a part of your life has sport been?
A: I have been active in sports since I was 8 years-old, so going on 30 years. The culture back in Australia, where I grew up, is to be outside and active. There are a lot of local clubs for all sports and schools heavily promote the idea of being healthy and active. Sport has been a massive part of my life. I grew up playing soccer and rugby all through my school years. Also, growing up in Sydney's Northern Beaches, I was constantly surfing or body boarding when I wasn't doing other sports.
Q: What about cycling in particular?
A: I started cycling when I was 15. I was doing a lot of cross-country running for my school and a school mate had just started working in a local bike shop and started racing. He suggested I start doing some riding for cross training. I borrowed a bike from my cousin, a nice Peugeot. It was a little big for me, but it did the job. A few months later I joined a local cycling club and did my first race. I got second, losing in the sprint by a tire width. From that point on I was hooked.
Q: What happened and when? Describe your injury.
It’s a culmination of things. I was in the Mentawai Islands off Indonesia in September 2015 surfing reefs where I took a number of beatings from the Indian Ocean. From these beatings and having an already weakened back from years of playing contact sports and being hunched over a bike, it finally gave out: I wound up with two annular tears on my L4-L5 disc on my right side.
Q: Back issues are always sort of mysterious injuries, was the solution to getting back to health clear cut? What rehabilitation was prescribed and how much time were you facing off the bike?
A: The back surgeon said that annular tears are quite common in athletes and cyclists in particular. It’s basically the tissue surrounding the disc tearing and the disc bulges through. Ultimately, the doctor said three months rest (no activity) for the tissue to heal. There was no real rehab prescribed to me, just rest. That being said, I started doing isometric exercise on the back and core to strengthen the muscles around the discs. I started getting weekly massages to help release tight fascia caused by the imbalances from the injury, as well as acupuncture to remove inflammation and expedite the healing process. I also added yoga and more stretching and rolling to my routine.
Q: Have you had to deal with injuries in the past?If so,how did you deal with them?
A: I had a hip injury in 2012 that required surgery. I tore the labrum in my hip, which caused bone on bone friction that resulted in arthritis and bone spurs developing. After that surgery, it took me 18 months to feel normal again and get back to racing. That was an arduous process. I saw my PT once a week and did specific mobility and strength exercises, along with massage and acupuncture. I’ve had to deal with small injuries before, but nothing on the scale of the hip and back, so nothing had really prepared me for the long road ahead after hip surgery. This back injury has been more debilitating. With the hip surgery, I was on a bike the next day spinning. With the back, it’s been recovering off the bike as cycling aggravates it, so that has been harder to deal with.
Q: How familiar were you with the process of rehab, and were you prepared for the physical and mental struggles associated with the long road back?
A: Going into surgery I was mentally prepared that the road back would be tough, but I was determined to succeed. What most frustrated me was the time frame the doctor gave me to heal. He said 6-8 weeks. That's good if you want to be mobile and limping around, but it was a false sense of security. After 8 weeks I was frustrated about why I wasn't healing quickly enough to be pushing my body again. I quickly realized that's what they tell normal folk who aren't crazy athletes like ourselves and who don’t push their bodies to the limit.
He should have said 18 months. That's how long it took me to race and be back in the winner’s circle again.
Q: We hear of athletes becoming impatient with rehab, pushing too hard too soon, and relapsing mid-stream and ultimately prolonging the rehab process. How hard has it been to avoid the typical pitfalls?
A: That’s one of the hardest things for an athlete to deal with. You have your good and your bad days, but when you have a good day you think to push harder instead of letting your body recover from your previous workout. What I learned is that the process is about taking two steps forward and one step back. I have also learned about the vulnerabilities of my body and preservation. My mom always told me that I push myself too much! (laughs). When you’re a kid you shrug comments like that off as your body bounces back quickly. Today I wish I had listened to her! Now, it’s not about how hard my mind can push my body, but about listening to my body and letting it telling me how hard I can go. I also have increased my recovery time in my training to allow my body to sufficiently recover so I can get the maximum out of it when I train. As an aging athlete, that makes a massive difference to my overall fitness and performance. The moral of the story here is ‘Listen to your mother!’ (laughs). You might not think she knows best, but she does.
Q: Where are you now? As you've gotten back into racing, what are you finding are the biggest things you need to work on: General fitness? Feeling comfortable riding in the bunch? Tactics?
A: Right now I’m getting back into racing and slowly building up the fitness that I have lost over the past 6 months. The hardest part is just getting back into that training rhythm. As for tactics, I’m an old dog and the mind is still sharp. If I have matches to burn I’m going to use them wisely, not like before. I remember when coming back from the hip surgery I was very nervous riding in the pack and taking risks, but that eventually passed the more races i did. This time around I don’t have that problem. But, the risks I used to take in bunch sprints I don’t anymore. It just ain’t worth falling off!
Q: What are your plans and hopes for the remainder of the season?
A: The main goal is to be 100% healthy, to continue to train and race, and with any luck get a few results. Ultimately, it’s just about being out there racing again, and feeling great even if I come in last place. Hanging out and racing with the team again feels nice. I missed that a lot at the start of the season when everyone was racing.
Q: What were some of the biggest lessons learned throughout this process, and do you have any advice for someone who may be reading with this who is also struggling with recovering from an injury?
A: The biggest lesson I learned is to stick to the program, build a solid team around you from your PT to your acupuncturist, and have positive people around you, constantly encouraging you. Another factor that helped me was getting to races and watching. Even though it sucked to not be racing, it was all the motivation I needed to work hard and get back out there! You are always going to have your good and bad days, just listen to the people around you, their judgment and expertise, and have faith in yourself and the process. With that alone, you’re 90% on the road to recovery.
Ryan McGarrity back in action at the Mengoni Grand Prix, photo via One Imaging Photography: