How To Get Back on the Bike When Your Brain Says No

Recovering from an injury and getting back to riding can be extremely challenging. This might help.


Coming back from an injury is a universally challenging experience. It’s challenging physically, it’s challenging mentally, and it’s challenging emotionally. And understandably so, really—if the last time you did a thing resulted in physical pain, it makes sense that you wouldn’t be in a huge hurry to do that thing again.

The popular admonition that has long been held up as the gold standard for overcoming post-injury jitters and is usually some variation of “just get back on the horse,” which encourages ignoring any feelings of fear or apprehension that are invariably going to come up en route, is actually totally counterproductive.

It turns out that following this well-intentioned but misguided advice and going too hard too soon, ignoring the mind’s reaction and role in the process, can backfire spectacularly. It can backfire both physically and mentally, ultimately making it that much harder to get back to doing the activity we love long-term. Has this happened to you? It has certainly happened to me.

So what exactly is going on here? As with just about everything that has to do with our bodies, the answer lies with the most important athletic muscle we possess: our brain. The injury-pain-stress-anxiety cycle feeds on itself, and we have to address the brain’s role in order to come out on the other side.

Different Exercise Intensifies Your Brain Health

To make sense of why it’s so difficult to come back to any kind of movement after hurting ourselves, whether that’s riding bikes or just walking around the block, we need to understand the brain’s role so we can work with it instead of against it.

The first thing that’s often helpful to keep in mind is that fear, apprehension, and psychological resistance toward movement after injury is a totally normal reaction, and it’s one that precedes rational thought. It’s an automatic response. For this we can thank our amygdala, a part of our brain roughly the size of an almond that’s responsible for processing emotions.

The anxiety and fear we feel is our amygdala doing its evolutionary job, which is to keep us safe and alive. (The amygdala is also where the fight, flight, or freeze response originates.) Trying to push through, avoid, or circumvent that fear, apprehension, and psychological resistance is not only pointless but actually counterproductive. To understand a more beneficial way of going about the healing process, let’s start by examining what’s going on in our brain when we’re in the injury cycle.

When we’re doing an activity—let’s say cycling—and the activity causes pain, the pain is registered by our brain as a threat, activating the fear/anxiety response in the amygdala. That activation then becomes associated with the activity—in this case, cycling. Inadvertently, we create a link in our brains between cycling and something our mind perceives as a threat, and the neurons firing in reaction to both the pain and the cycling have become “wired” together.

Now any future cycling activity will automatically put our amygdala on high alert, causing us to feel fear, which in turn can further amplify the body’s experience of pain, which further reinforces the connection. As Jennifer Heisz, PhD, wrote in her book, Move the Body, Heal the Mind (which I highly recommend), “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” They don’t call it the injury cycle for nothing.

Once the association of a particular movement and pain has been made in the brain, can it be undone? Neuroplasticity, defined by the National Institutes of Health as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections after injuries,” says yes. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes conscious effort.

The way we can literally change our mind is by first changing our mindset.

The way we can literally change our mind is by first changing our mindset. By moving away from the “just do it” mentality and instead recognizing that we need to take care of our brain along with our body, we can more effectively support the healing process, inside and out. Consciously changing our mindset can have a powerful effect on our ability to overcome a painful injury, and while this seems simple to do, it isn’t necessarily easy.

Next, we need to learn how to calm our amygdala when it activates in anticipation of a repeat experience of the physical pain it associates with a particular activity. A good starting point is to simply pay attention to and focus on the physical sensation of our breath.

The breath is like a direct line of communication to our nervous system and a powerful tool to modulate its reactions. Studies have shown that simply focusing on our breathing can result in calming messages being sent to the amygdala, essentially hitting the reset button on the automatic fear response. New neural connections, in which the activity and pain are not intertwined, can then be made.

Consciously changing my mindset and focusing on my breath during the dicey moments on my road to injury recovery have helped me immensely. My hope is that these two simple yet powerful tools will come in handy if you find yourself navigating any situation that kicks up your natural fear response, especially if you’re dealing with an injury. I hope it will make your healing journey one that enriches your relationship with your body. After all, it’s one of the most vital connections you’ll ever have.

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