During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I fell in love. Not with a girl, but with a bike.
I rode from Oregon to Connecticut, along with a small group of fellow students and two ride leaders. Somewhere near the Great Divide, I was hooked.
After I returned home, I joined a local racing team. The anxiety of hearing, “whistle may blow at any time,” the pain of hanging onto the wheel in front of me for forty miles, and the satisfaction of crossing the finish line in one piece felt great. I could almost see the endorphins flowing through my brain.
Even though I was only 16, after my first race I knew I had found my passion. I wanted to stand on the podium and work my way up from a beginner (a Cat 5) to an advanced rider (a Cat 2) to a Cat 1 (just like the pros). I ramped up my mileage, set tight restrictions on my diet (in cycling, lighter is better), and raced twice every weekend. I wanted, or maybe needed, to get past that wheel in front of me. The problem was that I tried to get there too quickly.
Halfway through my first season of racing, I started to burn out. I found myself drawn toward my living room couch and the pleasures of junk food, but I stayed away from both. I enjoyed riding less and less, and I sensed my motivation slipping away. But still, I did not ease up, though some days I prayed for a flat tire. My mind and my body had had enough.
My knee was the first to officially quit. The more I pedaled, the worse it felt. So I took a day off. A day became a week, a week became two months, and two months became five. Eventually I had surgery to excise an irritated strand of scar tissue (called a plica) from my injured right knee.
Seven months after my knee had quit, I was finally able to ride again. This time I ditched the plan to become the fastest racer in the world overnight. I slowed down. I learned to listen to my mind and my body. When I felt fatigued, I took a day off to recover. When I was hungry, I ate. When I didn’t sleep enough, I got more rest.
I was curious about how other cyclists dealt with overuse injuries, so I contacted Ted King, a New Hampshire native and professional cyclist extraordinaire. King sustained an overuse knee injury early last year and spent three weeks off the bike. “The biggest part [of healing] is just rest,” he told me. “You don’t want to flare anything up by overextending.”
Without enough rest, King believes it’s easy to get burned out. King’s advice is simple but effective: “Stay very well-rounded. Find something you love outside of the sport. Having outlets well outside of cycling is the biggest mental reset button. Make sure to have an off-season and cross-train throughout the year. If something hurts on the bike, it’s not going to hurt skiing, so go skiing.”
Chris Morin, a physical therapist at Sports and Physical Therapy Associates in Newton, seconds that notion of recovery and cross-training. “Recovery from your most recent physical exertion is of paramount importance,” he says. The nice thing about cross-training is that “by doing activity A, you’re recovering from activity B.”
To prevent injury, Morin recommends that athletes closely observe their mental and physical fatigue. “Cumulative fatigue plays a role, instead of just how much exertion there was on any given day. Fatigue turns into strain, and strain is where injuries occur. Listen to your body...In the end, our bodies know. If we learn to listen a bit more, it would go a long way.”
These days I’m still racing and training. I’m also swimming and making sure I get enough food and rest. Sometimes I even sit on the couch.
I push myself toward my goals, but I keep in mind that I must let myself be healthy if I want my to achieve long-term happiness, success, or both.
I’m in love with my bike once again. And best of all, my mind and my body feel great.
Ari Appel is a senior at Newton North High School. He plans on going to college next year and racing his bike.