We all have set backs over the years as a cyclist and at times these can be hard to accept or deal with, especially when you’ve been training hard for a trip or event. With the right motivation and people around you, it’s possible to make not only a full recovery but come back stronger and more motivated than ever before.

The Road To Recovery

An Inspirational Recovery Story - Don't Let A Set-Back Knock You Back.

Trevor back to full fitness
2020-02-04 12:53:00

We all have set backs over the years as a cyclist and at times these can be hard to accept or deal with, especially when you’ve been training hard for a trip. With the right motivation and people around you, it’s possible to make not only a full recovery but come back stronger and more motivated than ever before.

We talk to guest Trevor Jennings who after working for a year with coach Ray Sells had an unfortunate accident that led to a serious injury. Having reached his highest ever levels of fitness we talked to Trevor about his road to recovery. We hope this will inspire you to overcome any set backs you may have.

Before the accident

The 2018 season was a great period of time for you cycling. Can you give us an insight into how you arrived at your best ever level of fitness?

I had been a keen cyclist for 13 years mainly doing regular road rides, occasional sportives, which included Lands’ End to John O’Groats in 2011, and sessions on my turbo trainer during the winter months. In 2016 l did a week in the Alps with Colconquerors, which l really enjoyed; however, l realised that l needed to increase my stamina before returning in 2017. I purchased a ‘smart’ turbo trainer with ‘Trainer Road’ software and did regular sessions working from an initial FTP test of 210. By the time l revisited the Alps in the summer l had raised it to 247. 

It was during this trip that l had discussions with you about further improving my cycling ability. This soon led to me getting a cycling coach in the UK, which for someone aged 56 l didn’t think l would ever do. Ray got me to carry out another FTP test, which came in at 270, and provided me with a weekly training programme. On average it involved 3 turbo sessions during the week and a couple of road rides over the weekend, which l fitted in around my full-time work in the City of London. The focus was very much on intensity training and working across all the training zones with plenty of recovery built in. 

This continued into 2018 when l participated in a number of sportives, including the Lincoln Grand Pix, Ride London, and a week’s tour of the Somme with the Army Benevolent Fund. By the time I rode the Galibier to Ventoux raid in September my FTP had increased to 295. It’s fair to say that l was feeling really pleased with my development and discussed with Ray how l could further improve for 2019.

Trevor Riding in the French Alps

The Accident

In early January 2019 you had an accident. What happened?

It was a chilly Saturday morning on 5 January and l was riding my usual 35 miles route. I was only 10 miles from home and while negotiating a very slow right-hand turn my back wheel went from under me. l hit the tarmac very hard. I’m still not too sure why this happened but my guess is l slid on a greasy patch of road. 

At what stage did you understand that the injury was a serious one?

I recall the sensation of falling and then hitting the ground with considerable force. I felt a pain in my right hip but l thought it was just muscle damage. I realized it was probably more serious when l got up and found l couldn’t weight-bare on my right leg. The pain was immense when l tried. 

My wife came out and collected me in the car and took me to Epsom hospital A&E. I really should have gone by ambulance, but l was told the wait could be up to 2 hours. I was already getting cold and l would probably have developed hypothermia if l had waited, so l plucked up the strength to get in the car. 

I had to wait 90 minutes to get triaged and then a further 90 minutes to see the consultant despite explaining what had happened to me. If l had gone by ambulance l would have been seen earlier, which seems ridiculous but that’s the NHS system for you. During this time l was getting cold but they did give me a blanket. 

Eventually l did get to see the consultant who was excellent. He realized the potential severity of my injury, immediately arranged an X-ray and oral pain relief. Getting onto the X-ray trolley was a real challenge and the most painful part, particularly as the morphine hadn’t had the time to work. My pain threshold is high; however, the pain level hit 10 + when l had to move. That’s when l knew it was more than muscle damage.

The X-ray confirmed l had sustained a fracture across the hip joint, which can be clearly seen in the images. The consultant explained that l would be transferred to St Helier hospital for an operation the following day and that a plate and screws would be permanently fitted to repair the injury. He then went off to get a pair of scissors to cut my expensive bib tights off; however, l managed to do that with the help of my wife, so l was able to salvage them at least.

Given your achievements of the year what was going through your mind when you realised it was this serious?

It was a mixed bag of emotions and thoughts. The A&E consultant warned that l could be in hospital for 7 – 10 days, off-work for 3 to 6 months, and off the bike for at least 6 months. The surgery team gave more optimistic timescales, but clearly the recovery was going to take some time. I decided that my focus had to be on recovery and all l could do was to take it one stage at a time. 

I know in a previous career you worked with the Ambulance service. Can you tell us how you were cared for?

It was disappointing that l could have waited up to 2 hours for an ambulance at the scene of the accident, but the injury wasn’t life-threatening. That’s the issue with the 999 system. I would have deteriorated quickly though given the fact that l was getting cold. The delay with triage and then getting in to see the consultant in A&E was again down to the system. If l had been taken by ambulance l know l would have been placed in ‘majors’ straightaway and not left in a busy reception area sitting in a wheelchair with my leg extended looking out for anyone who was likely to bang into it.

To be fair, all the medical professionals l came in contact with were excellent. The A&E consultant recognized the extent of my injury and the X-ray team realized l was in a significant amount of pain. The surgery team explained the operation and immediate aftercare very well and the ward staff ensured l was well looked after. I am gluten and lactose intolerant and l even had a special menu to choose from (not all NHS hospitals offer that). 

I can’t thank enough the work done by the occupational therapists. They got me out of bed the day after the operation and using a zimmer frame. They provided me with a handbook of exercises, which became my bible for the next 6 weeks. By day-3 post-op they introduced me to my crutches and showed me how to climb and come down stairs. They then dropped the bombshell that l could go home that same day. 

The major part of my recovery relied on advice from physiotherapists, which l’ll discuss a later.

What was the diagnosis of your injury and how was this arrived at? 

It was a fracture across the top of the right hip and was confirmed by X-ray. The A&E consultant carried out a neurological check on my leg beforehand, which involved running a blunt pen down the entire length of my right foot. I nearly hit the roof with pain, but at least it confirmed there was no nerve damage.

How were you feeling mentally once you’d received the news?

Relived that l knew the extent of the injury but very uncertain as to what the recovery would involve and how long it would take. At least l didn’t have to wait long for the operation and there was no doubt that l needed it. While waiting in ‘majors’ in A&E l felt very good. The oral morphine was working, I was laying on a bed and, as the leg was supported by a pillow under my knee, l wasn’t in any pain. 

Trevor Fracture

The Recovery

You had surgery to repair the damage. What did this entail?

The operation took about 2 hours (l think). A plate was attached to the hip joint and secured in place with screws. It is a permanent fix and l won’t require any further surgery. Obviously, the surgeon had to cut through my muscle which caused natural trauma to the site thus effecting the recovery further.

I was advised to take care of the wound and not disturb the dressing as l had suffered a significant amount of gavel rash in the accident. Although it was cleaned during the operation, there was risk of infection which would cause major issues if it got to the metal work. This was probably the most distressing part as l know that complications following surgery can be disastrous. When the dressing was removed at my local GP surgery two weeks later the nurse was extremely pleased with the way in which the wound had healed. 

After the surgery how long was it before you were up and about?

The Occupational Therapy team got me out of bed the next morning, as a key part of the healing process relies on pressure being put on the injured leg. l had to use my left foot under my right leg to move it across the bed and it was quite painful getting my leg over the side of mattress. It really was a matter of having to learn to walk again with the aid of a zimmer frame, but l guess it’s like riding a bike!

When they introduced me to my crutches walking became easier. For a few days l needed both, but l was soon able to use just one crutch at home. Within a couple of weeks l just used one outdoors then shortly after l was able to walk unaided. 

How long was it until you were back on the bike riding after surgery? Was this a surprise?

A key part of my recovery was down to my physiotherapists. I was able to get 10 treatments via my employer’s private health insurance and this set me up really well. Initially l attended a weekly session and l routinely did two or three sets of exercises every day at home. As a result, the speed of my recovery was quicker than expected. They then went out to fortnightly appointments as my recovery was well above average. I also attended the NHS physio so that they could also check on my recovery. It’s fair to say that they were really surprised with my fast development. 

I went back on the turbo trainer 10 days after l was discharged from hospital. However, I wasn’t too sure if l could get back on the bike as getting my right leg over the saddle was an unknown, l then didn’t know how the leg would respond and finally, l needed to get the bike up to 20 mph to calibrate the trainer. I was pleasantly surprised that l had no issues and l was able to enjoy a short 5-minute spin with no pain or side effects. As regards getting back on the road, l made a pact with my physio that l would wait until Easter.  

Were you able to do any other activities to help maintain your aerobic fitness whilst you were unable to cycle?

My rehabilitation program was an essential part to maintaining my fitness. Initially this involved simple leg exercises, but as the muscle strengthened l was able to introduce light weights and higher resistant bands. It’s fair to say that walking really helped as it got me mobile and out of the house. There really is only so much daytime television that l can watch!

My wife was a great support throughout and we often went out on walks with our dog Jenson. I couldn’t take him on the lead for a couple of months and when l could l used two leads as he’s an Eurasier and 26kg of muscle and fluff. Once l had passed the point of needing crutches I was soon able to do more demanding exercises such as mountain climbers and squat jumps.  

At what stage did you decide that you were going to go all in not only to recovery but use this as a positive so you came back even stronger than before the accident?

My physiotherapist recommended that l should do some gym strengthening work as l had exhausted the exercises she recommended. I contacted a local gym and went along for a discussion with the principle fitness instructor. This turned out to be a very frank and, to a degree, disappointing insight to what he thought about physiotherapists. In fairness, he had suffered several injuries playing rugby over many years and had spent a great deal of time rehabilitating; however, I got the impression that he was more interested in how much l could spend each month with one of the fitness advisors. I gave this some thought and later emailed him with an indication of what l could go to. Interestingly, l didn’t get a reply despite sending two further emails, so l had to consider an alternative solution.

Fortunately, my son is a gym instructor and, coincidently before the accident, l had put some exercise equipment in my garden’s summer house. Although he lives in 200 miles away, he was able to design a weight training programme for me via an APP. This ensured he could keep a check on my progress and adapt it as l progressed. I started with squats (literally the 20kg bar), planks, kettlebell swings and some stretching exercises, which focused on my quads and glutes as well as my core strength. I have now progressed to a wider range of weights and core exercises, which includes squats (67.5kg) and deadlifts (55kg). I start and finish each session with a 6-minute warm up on the turbo. 

Was it helpful having a cycling coach at this stage? Did this help your comeback?

Definitely, yes. It’s fair to say that initially neither of us knew how my recovery would go; however, l was determined to keep normal contact with Ray. We maintained our weekly phone calls and once l got back onto the turbo trainer he developed a series of short, low intensity sessions for me. As the strength in my thighs improved so he increased their duration and intensity. The one thing we didn’t change was my FTP level, as that gave me a baseline to work from and l could easily gauge how my recovery was improving. 

I know that as part of your rehabilitation you had a lot of physiotherapy. How important was this to your longer term recovery?

My physiotherapist played a vital role in my long-term recovery. Initially l had weekly sessions with plenty of advice and feedback on my progress. As my recovery was progressing quicker than anticipated, the sessions became fortnightly. It was essential that l did the recommended exercises each day, which she indicated most of her clients don’t do.

You decided to carry on with strength and conditioning training after the physiotherapy ended. What made you decide to do this and how has this benefited you?

I recall the conversations we had previously when l was in the Alps about the value of introducing strength and conditioning training into cycle training schedules. I had never really got into them but, by default, the injury meant l now had to do them and l could see the benefit they were having on me. To a degree they have now become second nature in my training regime and my son is keen to keep me progressing too.  I aim to complete 3 sessions a week and they each take just over the hour.

I can’t over emphasise the importance of getting professional advice before introducing weights into a training schedule, as the risk of injury is high if too heavy loads are attempted or the wrong technique deployed.

Were there other medical professionals involved along the way that helped you to make a full recovery?

Yes. I have a friend who is an Osteopath. He made the observation that given my fitness level before the injury, if there was ever an example of pre-rehabilitation, then l was it. The point he was making was that regular cyclists are in a good physical and mental condition to be able to cope with set-backs.

I utilized the physiotherapist and osteopath at work to help with some massage and muscular strains which l occasionally experienced. I also maintained contact with the NHS physiotherapy department to ensure they could keep a check on my progress too. I saw them a few times and it’s fair to say they were surprised at the speed of my recovery. 

Was there ever a point in your recovery when you thought you’d not get back to your previous level of fitness? How did you deal with this?

There were times when l was frustrated and impatient as, despite the speed of my recovery, l wanted to do more. I had to keep focus on what full recovery would look like. At my 6-week post op assessment my consultant stated that the bone had healed, which was in about half the time l was originally told. He then emphasised that, regardless of age, it’s possible to build up muscle until you die although it’s more challenging in older age.

He did confirm three things: firstly, l suffered a high impact injury, which had compressed my thigh muscle; secondly, l had experienced a degree of muscle wastage since the injury; and finally, he had caused major trauma by cutting through the muscle to get to the fracture. With that he told me l was discharged and to go away and carry on doing what l was doing because my recovery was text book.

As your recovery progressed how did your cycling training programme look. Was it a gradual build up of duration and intensity?

As mentioned previously, l kept my FTP at my pre-accident level so that l had a baseline to work from. Yes, it was a gradual build up of duration and intensity on the turbo trainer. I kept away from VO2 Max segments until l felt l could cope. The advantage of working with Ray was that l had to keep a daily diary on Training Peaks, so he had full visibility on how l was feeling.

I recall the challenge l had during the British Cycling 20 minute warm up period, particularly the stage where it ramps from 55% to 105% over 8 minutes. For a few weeks l plateaued around 75% to 80%, as my leg strength just couldn’t cope with the excess demand. It was a major achievement when l eventually held it all the way through to 105%. 

Did you struggle psychologically with the reduced load and training intensity or embrace it as a step in the right direction?

I had to develop a different mindset. There was no way l could achieve my previous targets, it had to be a reduced load and training intensity. This was the only way l was going to get back to full fitness.

Trevor recovered and back in the Alps

Stronger Than Ever

Do you think you’ve made a complete recovery?

Yes, l do and some. I still get the occasional ache in the right thigh, particularly if l’ve had a hard training session or demanding road ride, but it’s something l know l will have to live with. My FTP has increased to over 300 now in order that l can work within the correct training zones. Although that was a key target when l was laying in hospital, l’m not too sure that l believed l could actually achieve it. 

How do you feel now when riding in comparison to before the accident?

I certainly feel stronger and this has definitely been the case since returning from the Galibier to Ventoux raid in September. I am particularly pleased with the improvement in my climbing technique. 

It was inspirational to see you cycling better than ever in the Alps in September 2019 after your set-back. What advice would you give to someone who has a major set back to inspire them to a full recovery?

Don’t kick yourself about the accident or injury. Accept that it has happened (you can’t change that) and work the problem. Listening to medical professionals is important and developing a sensible and achievable rehabilitation programme is essential. Try to keep a positive mindset and don’t set unrealistic goals. I looked at where l wanted to be in 3, 6, 9 and 12 months.

Trevor better than ever cycling in Gran Canaria

I believe you have a few tips you'd like to share with anyone recovering from a major set-back?

I certainly do. Here’s a few tips which l wanted to share:

1. The simple exercises l started off with were actually very hard. I made sure l set aside appropriate recovery time otherwise l would have set myself back.

2. Don’t over do it, even when you think you are back to normal. I felt really nervous when l did a charity ride at work from the City of London to Brighton (67 miles) with work colleagues. I’ll never forget though how l felt after successfully climbing Ditchling Beacon in a good time and then having a lovely spin through to Brighton seafront. 

3. During the recovery phase, particularly in the early stages, take time to do other things. I often went out for walks and took in a drink/lunch with my wife and our dog. 

4. To help with muscle development l started taking a daily protein shake (high protein / low carb), which has also definitely helped. I still take it now.

5. I am pleased to say that l was back to work 7 weeks after the accident. Again, this was significantly quicker than first thought; however, l did enlist the support of my employer’s occupational health service. They recommended a phased return, which ensured l travelled outside of normal office hours and worked from home a couple of times each week.

6. This year l have introduced a 10-minute simple stretching exercise schedule into my training first thing each morning. I have already started to notice the reduction in general muscle soreness during the day. 

It's been great to hear about your recovery Trevor, we are sure that your story will inspire others to be focused, take things step by step and have confidence that a full recovery awaits after any set back. Just over one year on from your accident you've just spent a week with us in Gran Canaria, you were looking in great shape. How did you feel on the bike?

Gran Canaria was a great experience for me and l think this was my best performance so far.

Trevor enjoying life back on the road