The process of recovery – Nicole Frain

I crashed in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, in a 30+ rider pile up 100kms into the race, just 20km to go. I crashed the hardest I ever have, in my first ever World Tour race after just two years of road racing. I crashed and broke my collarbone, again, just 8 months after doing it the first time. I crashed, and now I have to recover, again.

Crashing is as much mental, as it is physical.

Physically, it hurts. You immediately have physical injuries that need tending to. In my case a broken collarbone, a damaged little finger and numerous lacerations that required more than 50 stitches. This is the immediate effect. You won’t focus on much else at this point, and probably for at least the next fortnight depending on the extent of your injuries. You aren’t worried about the lack of riding your bike when it hurts just to get dressed or roll over in bed.

Physically, your body is doing everything it can to recover. You will sleep more, a lot more. During this first fortnight I started to sleep an average of 12-14hrs a night, maybe add in an afternoon nap too (this made it much harder to return to work and normal routine!). Your body will likely swell, you will feel bloated and puffy as your body works internally on bruising and healing. It doesn’t make you feel amazing. You will ache, most noticeably when you try to push yourself to far in a day and your body will tell you that’s enough. I push boundaries so I am familiar with this ache.

My first 1-2 weeks post-crash I mostly spent them in Melbourne, following an initial surgery to put a plate in my collarbone, and an assessment to my finger. Followed by another surgery 5 days later to place a rod in my finger to aid the healing process, followed by outpatient follow ups before I could finally get myself home to Tasmania and start to feel like me again.

Everyone’s healing process, timeframe, pain tolerance and drive will differ from this point.
I have always been told I am a good healer, being fit and healthy plays a part in that. I have also been told my pain tolerance is high, as I imagine most sports people’s is, making me a high candidate to push my physical limits and something I have to be mindful of while recovering.

My timeframe is a bit undisclosed. My collarbone is plated, it will now heal fast and well, and three weeks post-crash I can do almost anything I used to with little to no plain. I continue to avoid anything ‘loading’ through my shoulder like pushups, abdominal side or front planks, and no lifting through that side but to be honest I don’t recall the last time I did a push up anyway. The plate will be scheduled to be removed a year from now.

My finger continues to have a rod in it and will for another week. It is still healing, with internal bone and tendon damage and will require hand therapy for a while. Where I am lucky is that it’s my little finger, and the one used least for grip strength and function. What I continue to be sad about is the lack of nail present, which I am told will hopefully grow back in maybe 6 months-time. It all takes time.

With all these physical injuries, what can I do?

Thankfully we have come a long way in the quality of indoor trainers that this is the immediate go to following injuries that rule you off the road for a while. So, I have been hitting that up most days. It is boring, but mentally I like to turn my legs over, to feel like I am not losing everything I worked so hard to get so I am not starting completely at square one again. 2-4 weeks post injury and the training and other physical activity can arguably be more for mental health then it is physical.

4-6 weeks post injury; physically I am well on the mend. It can now be harder not to want to push the limits. But the injuries on top might look good, but underneath these things are still healing. I still have to be very careful, and train to a limited degree. At this stage getting back outside on the bike starts to become an option.

Aside from the bike, I have been getting into the gym. This time is the perfect time for me to focus on some goals that are off the bike to help for the upcoming season. These needs monitoring though, approval from the doctors and a program from a strength and conditioning coach. I have a long background in strength work, so I know what I am doing, but if you didn’t, doing exercises while nursing injury should be well monitored. I can’t do anything that requires me to hold weights through my left side, therefore we manage this by holding a weight with both hands to my chest. I cannot do squats or exercises that load my shoulder, so we do the leg press and modified lunges. I can do core work but limited oblique work. Three are always options.

All this talk about the physical effects, what about the mental.

Mental is the invisible injury. 1-2 weeks post injury and everyone is there for you, you receive flowers, get well cards, lots of phone calls and check ins. 2 weeks plus, and it’s not that people don’t care or that they have forgotten, its just that life still goes on. Out of sight, out of mind, so you hear a little less from people. This time can be a bit lonely and that’s why it’s important to work on your mental health too.

The immediate response from friends, family, colleagues, sponsors, businesses, fellow riders and people I didn’t know was overwhelming. It was amazing to think that so many people cared and that so many people wished me well. I felt loved, appreciated and important. In those initial stages post-crash, this response can be harder to process and maybe I didn’t process it at all, but it made me feel good on the inside and that’s really important to feel.

It is hard not to think about the crash in a negative way initially. It takes a lot of work to change that mindset. Initially, I recall asking myself ‘how has this happened again?’ and ‘can I do this to myself again?’ Questioning why we do something in a time like this is a really normal thing to do. You should try not to be scared of the question, but instead expect you will ask it. You also don’t have to have an answer to it then and there either.
I started to think about why it happened. Was it me? Is it a lack of ability or skill, did I do something wrong? Again, these are normal thoughts but ones that you must be kind to yourself over. I have always had a bit of a tough outlook, often just pushing out the bad memories and ignoring them, or a bit of a ‘that’s life’ attitude and ‘can’t change it now’ opinion. This works for some people and not for others, I wasn’t taught this mindset, it is me.

Sometimes, the crash is your fault. Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing you could have done to avoid it. And while in my dreams I think I could have pulled off the biggest bunny hop over riders in my life, in the wet at 75kmhr, the truth is I can’t bunny hop that well, so no, I probably couldn’t have avoiding this incident.
Our mind will play tricks on us in times of distress. It will forget facts, twist memories and retain information you don’t want. Time will move quickly and then mind-numbingly slow.

I am four weeks post-crash now and it now becomes a game of doing what I can do physically and trying not to become to mentally frustrated with the situation. It can be hard to return to the bike. The last recollection of my riding ability was that I was in the form of my life. Strong, fit and I could race back to back days. Coming back to the bike I will feel slow, efforts will be hard, I can’t race right now, and I have to take it easy. That’s frustrating. But my energy is better spent on other things and not worrying about what I can’t change.

To help with the mental stress of injury I think it’s important to have a strong support network. Those closest to you are best and a few professionals. Your friends, partner and family to check in with you day to day. Your coach to keep you on track with your training, remind you that it’s where you are meant to be, and it will all come back in time. I have also seen a sports psychologist, to talk about some of the thoughts that I have which can be really helpful to understand, process and set plans in place for management.

Racing is hard, sport is hard, it can be easily argued that an injury, set back or deviation from the perfect can be harder but time heals, and being kind to yourself is important.

- Nicole Frain, St.LukesHealth Brand Ambassador
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