In part 1 of this series, I spoke about what the collarbone is, how a fracture is repaired, and the rehabilitation process of regaining your range of motion and strength back in your shoulder. In part 2, I will discuss the course of action required to recoup your cycling fitness safely and effectively.
Resuming riding can occur anywhere from 3 to 12 weeks after a collarbone fracture depending upon:
- The type of rider you are. Professional cyclists have a contract to uphold and need to keep themselves in tip-top shape to be re-signed next year. For this reason, you will hear of some professionals returning to training in less than 3 weeks and competition 4 weeks, whereas recreational riders usually returning around 15 weeks1.
- How the fracture was repaired. Going the surgical route usually means a return to training sooner than the non-surgical route. However, this is not a guarantee, especially if the surgeon is conservative, or if the fracture sustained is serious.
- Aggressiveness of the treating doctor’s protocol. The more aggressive the protocol, the quicker you will be able to resume training.
Once you are cleared by your doctor to resume riding, you will have lost a significant amount of fitness which can vary depending upon how long of a break you needed off the bike. Fitness lost will come mainly from your cardiovascular system and more so from your body’s ability to utilize oxygen, aka VO2 Max, to the tune of a 16 percent decrease in VO2 Max after a three month hiatus. You will also lose mitochondrial density, overall blood volume, and possess a decreased Functional Threshold Power (FTP)2.
With that being said, do not assume you can begin repping out 20 minute efforts at your pre-injury FTP, or have the power to create a break and maintain the gap your first race back. Regaining your fitness usually takes as long as losing it, so if you needed to take 8 weeks off the bike, you can safely assume it will take 8 weeks to get back to your previous fitness levels. Fortunately, the more fitness you have pre-injury and the longer you have been an athlete will result in a less fitness loss and a slower decline.
Getting Back in The Saddle
Once you get the nod to return to cycling from your doctor, there are a few key steps you can take to make your transition back to the bike as smooth as possible.
Your first ride will probably be on a stationary trainer as you will likely still be in your sling. Have a friend, teammate, significant other, etc. set your trainer and bike up for you in a comfortable space that has lots of windows, a television, fan and as many other creature comforts you need as you will be spending at least the next few weeks on the trainer. You should have zero expectations for the first ride except to get your legs to turn over in circles again. I would also suggest keeping the output in the active recovery zone until you can comfortably spin for an hour. Since you will be in your sling riding, expect the need to either stop and stand up, or sit up to relieve pressure from your bottom and give your other arm a rest from holding you up.
Once you can spin for an hour, you can then begin to increase the intensity of the rides. Here is the blueprint I suggest:
- Warm-up: 15 minutes steadily progressing from Active Recovery zone to Endurance zone
- Main set: 2 x 10 minutes at Endurance zone with 5 minutes easy spin between
- Cool-down: 10 minutes at Active Recovery zone
You should ramp up the time spent at Endurance zone slowly; 2 x 10, 3 x 8, 3 x 10, 3 x 12, etc. spinning easy for half of the active time between sets. Keep the main set at Endurance zone until you can comfortably spend an hour in it.
Once you receive clearance to remove your sling and place weight through your arm again, you can usually resume riding outdoors again. The following is what I did my first few rides back and what I suggest to my athletes:
- Choose short loops. Performing short loops close to home instead of long out and back loops will provide you with the opportunity of stopping at multiple points if your shoulder becomes sore and tired. If you feel good, do more than one loop.
- Select roads that are smooth. Riding over potholes and rough pavement will not feel good for a while. The better the pavement is, the longer your ride can be as your shoulder will stay fresher.
- Keep the elevation gain minimal. Standing up places greater stress through the shoulders and arms which will lead to faster fatigue. Choosing flat routes will allow you to stay seated longer and will keep your shoulder from tiring out.
- Group riding. Riding in a group, and especially racing, is going to take time as you need to regain your confidence in your ability to bump shoulders and push off other riders. I suggest riding only with those who you trust and can predict what they will do. Doing so will allow you to relax more and give you the opportunity to call for a rest break if your shoulder becomes sore.
Breaking your collarbone may feel like the end of your racing and riding career, but I promise you it is not. If you can keep your head up, stay patient, and not become discouraged once you start riding again, it is amazing how quickly your fitness will return. For me, breaking my collarbone wasn’t the end, rather the beginning!