Just Don’t Ride Hard

I never even saw the breakdown coming. I had a number of beautiful weeks in November and December of what I call “the renaissance”, the time when my back barely hurt, my legs weren’t numb or oddly painful, and biking was goooooood to me. I averaged 8 hours a week on the trainer with a mix of intense riding and recovery spins. A few weeks were “down” weeks, when I’d consciously ride less hours to give my body a break. Towards the end I felt a little mentally burnt out, so I eased up on the intensity, stopped “virtual racing” and pegging my heart rate, and just pedaled around racking up miles and chasing other riders around.

I logged just over 5000 miles in 2017 and I am damn proud. That’s even with a few months off for bed rest leading into surgery and the recovery period after. Were they “quality” miles? Nope. Outdoors? Almost never. Did I push my body to whatever constraints the medical team gave me each week.? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Last week was when the chaos hit. After my “just pedal” time period around the holidays, I got my spark back and decided to do a virtual race. I signed up for a 10 mile time trial, wanting to test out the new trainer control unit, see where my wattages would line up, and maybe validate my FTP if everything clicked. I warmed up with no issues and lined up at the virtual gate. The gun went off and I shot out with the pack. Very quickly, perhaps a minute in, I had a searing pain in my left groin and left hamstring. Shit. Nerve pain.

I charged on, determined to give it my best with whatever I had. The pain spread throughout my left hamstring and quad, completely consuming the upper part of my leg. Next the leg became weak and partially numb. How an appendage can be simultaneously numb AND painful always seems a little cruel to me. The leg felt heavy, as if the right leg was pushing the left one around in circles. I may have been better off unclipping that leg and riding with just the right! The outside of my left calf also became numb and I had trouble feeling my foot, but I was damn determined to finish what I started. I’m a stubborn mule like that.

The pain spread throughout my left hamstring and quad, completely consuming the upper part of my leg. Next the leg became weak and partially numb. How an appendage can be simultaneously numb AND painful always seems a little cruel to me.

That evening shooting pains throughout my left leg kept waking me, and I grit my teeth to survive the workday on Wednesday. I stretched, avoided activity, used the heating pad, took anti-inflammatories during the day and stronger pain medications at night and hoped for the best. By Wednesday afternoon, I slouched into my boss’s office and let her know I needed to work from home on Thursday. I explained that I needed to triage the leg. I learned the hard way back in October on a work trip that if I push through the pain for multiple days in a row, it’ll result in a 6 week setback. I don’t have time for that! I confessed my Tuesday night activity; however, in my defense I need to say that during my 8 week renaissance mentioned above I had ridden much harder and longer than that without issue. The lack of consistency drives this engineer absolutely nuts.

Thursday passed uneventfully — my recliner is good to me, I took less than 3000 steps, shuffled the dog up and down the block, and did a 20 minute easy spin on the trainer with zero issues. Things were feeling decent. By Friday afternoon, the numbness and pain were gone and I was feeling like myself again.

I saw the surgeon on Friday for my 6 month check-up. He is still absolutely giddy at my x-rays and suspects that my vertebrae are fully fused by this point. He still wants to see me at 12 months to make certain there are no problems, but things look amazing from a structural standpoint. We got into a discussion about the recent nerve flare up and the potential causes. It could be that —

  • My nerves are still angry, and they could take 12 months total to recover. They were contorted for a very long time and behave in unpredictable ways.
  • The fusion could have caused new, unwanted mobility in my SI joint. Some of the affected nerves pass through (over? why didn’t I take anatomy again?!) that area and cycling can exacerbate this sensation of pain.
  • Scar tissue has formed at the surgical site, pinching on nerves. If this is the case it’ll never get better. WHAT?!

He dared even suggest that “riding hard” may be off limits in the future. Again, WHAT?! NO. The only thing I can do in the short term is pay attention to my body, listen carefully, and respect what it needs. Back off when things are painful, be willing to change my ride plans at the drop of a hat, and try and have a blast when things are going well.

He dared even suggest that “riding hard” may be off limits in the future. Again, WHAT?! NO. The only thing I can do in the short term is pay attention to my body, listen carefully, and respect what it needs.

So what did I do today? I rode OUTDOORS for the first time in weeks and pedaled the fat bike aka Baby Moose around on singletrack! At first, I had to force myself to focus on the good — observing the animal tracks in the woods, chuckling at the crazy lines people had ridden over snow-covered obstacles, and the wonderful quiet of the woods. By the time the ride was over I was grinning ear to ear when my speed would top a “massive” 10 mph or I’d successfully carry my momentum through a roller. I didn’t beat myself up when I walked rock gardens (too jarring) or when I’d brake on a downhill to be damn sure I wasn’t going to topple over. I had a blast!

After today’s ride, I want to focus more on training and less on miles. I think that will be key to a happier, healthier body going forward. “Training” for me will entail remembering how to steer a bicycle outside, working on body positioning on singletrack, and strengthening my core to hold me up on the bike for longer than an hour at a time. I’ll have a hard time not focusing on miles, speed, and watts, but I think I’ll be a better rider if I succeed.

If you’ve been in my boat and have tips, comment below or shoot me an email!!

5 thoughts on “Just Don’t Ride Hard

  1. Julie says:

    Hi. I suffered for years with angry sciatic pain resulting in a numb painful thigh. No where like yours but took away my pleasure. For the first time in years its back after driving my daughter 4 hours to a regatta. Dam! Enjoy your riding. I learnt to focus on quality not quantity too. Julie

  2. Anonymous says:

    I might try and find a physical therapist who utilizes the Graston Technique. If you google it, there is plenty of information out there. It is essentially a method of breaking up scar tissue to increase mobility and probably open up space around nerves. Several people I know who have had a similar surgery have benefited from this.

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