An Olympic Cyclist’s Tips for Recovering From Major Injuries

Taylor Phinney offers his tips to mentally and physically recover from a major injury.
Taylor Phinney offers his tips to mentally and physically recover from a major injury.Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

At last year's U.S. National Road Championships, an official race motorcycle allegedly forced Taylor Phinney to renegotiate a dangerous curve. Second later, Phinney, a rising star in the pro peloton, slammed onto the pavement and was carried off with a compound fracture to his tibia. The accident may have happened in a matter or seconds, but the 25-year-old cyclist's recovery from the trauma continues more than a year later.

"It's taken longer than the doctors originally told me, but I think that's a combination of them not really knowing how my body would respond and the doctors not wanting to be completely real with me," says the two-time Olympian. Indeed, as the 2015 cycling season will hit its highpoint at July's Tour de France, Phinney will be stuck at home, still recovering from an injury suffered 14 months earlier.

Despite being forced out of his sport for so long, he's surprisingly accepting of the circumstances. "I'm a different person than I was before the crash," he says. "I spend more time thinking about my good fortune rather than my unlucky moments."

Phinney is now back riding his bike and regaining his fitness. According to a recent VeloNews report, he’s currently hoping to return to racing by the end of the summer. Ideally he hopes to be back in race shape in time to line up at the World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, this October.

We spoke to Phinney about how he's dealing with the mental side of recovery and why he's coming back even physically stronger than before. Here's his advice on how to set yourself up for a successful recovery. 

Cut Yourself Off, Initially
"At first I was really focused on getting back to racing and I was keeping track of how everyone was doing. But I really felt like I was missing out. So I completely alienated myself from the racing world and tried to find something to fill my time," says Phinney. His advice is to silence your friends who only post about their workouts in your Facebook feed — at least for the moment — and to refrain from pouring over your local race results. 

Don't Wallow
Okay, you can wallow a little bit, but then you need to get back to doing productive things with your time. For Phinney, this meant attending flight school and learning to paint. "I chose flight school because I needed that adrenaline that cycling always gave me," he says. And he's become an art nerd. In a new video produced by his sponsor Lululemon, Phinney details his newfound obsession with modern art. 

Accept That Your Body Will Change
"I actually lost weight and muscle mass in the months after the crash because my body was working so hard to fuse the tibia," says Phinney. Even now that he's back on the bike and training regularly, he says his body is slightly different. For Phinney it's been important to remember that change isn't always a bad thing — his bodyweight has stayed lower, and that should be a boon to racing. 

Face Your Fears
"One of the first rides I did once I could get back on my bike was a big climb right outside Boulder," says Phinney. But the long slog up a mountain wasn't just for his legs. "I wanted to go up so I could do the descent. I knew the longer I waited to do a decent the more intimidating it would be." 

Think on the Bright Side
Even lying in a hospital bed after his surgery, Phinney never lost sight of the amazing fact that his body could repair itself. "I'm not trapped in my body the way my dad is," says Phinney about his dad, Davis Phinney, who is battling Parkinson's. "With anything bad that's happened to me, I've always just tried to think that it's not that bad no matter what it is."   

Make Long-Term Plans
Short-term goals are what athletes live off of: Today I will hit my splits, run a PR, or lift a personal best. But when you're injured, you don't get that daily attaboy feeling. Keep yourself sane by instead focusing on long-term projects both inside and outside of your sport.

The time off made Phinney realize that he won't be a pro racer forever. He's started to think about what he might do after his career ends, mulling over either working in film or possibly collaborating with Lululemon on an apparel project. He's also turned his full attention to racing the Rio 2016 Olympics. These longer-term goals have kept him from freaking out about not hitting the day's workout or getting a good race result. 

Learn to Love Gains of Any Kind
"It's amazing to realize how much you can lose," says Phinney about his fitness level. "But I'm really trying to focus on enjoying the process. There's something really gratifying about seeing gains on an almost daily basis, even if they're small."