Coming back stronger: How to bulletproof your body like an athlete after injury
How the track cyclists from the Great Britain Cycling Team make an effective return from injury
It all started with a crash in August 2022 at the European Track Championships in Munich, when track cyclist Sophie Capewell collided with her Great Britain Cycling team-mate Emma Finucane in the team sprint event. With tears in Capewell's eyes and a ripped jersey, she exited from the velodrome for medical assessment.
In days that followed, it was stated that Capewell and her team-mate were medically OK and they would race at the next competition. Thinking nothing of it at the time other than some slight hip irritation, Capewell continued with her gruelling training plan and competition season, battling through the pain.
"We’re athletes, you just power through. Especially when you don’t think it is that serious," Capewell told Rouleur. "However, after some time off and the pain still not going away, that is when I had a scan and we realised it was a bit more serious than first thought. From that moment it all quickly changed and everything for me stopped.
"That was a big disappointment because it had been a tough year with all the big races, and my next race was the Champions League which is one of the more fun races to take part in, so that felt like an extra blow. Suddenly, it was all serious again."
Since November 2022 when Capewell withdrew from the Champions League, the 24-year-old track cyclist has had to put in some hard work off the bike to ensure she is bulletproof for the upcoming season. This has included lots of work on the gym floor, focusing on her mobility and strength.
"When we first discovered my injury I took some time off completely," said Capewell. “Then we started slowly introducing lighter weights, moving through the different ranges of motion. From then on it was pretty much a steady increase week-on-week. The gym was one of the first things that we introduced back into my training plan as there are lots of different things you can do and different ways to challenge certain areas.”
As part of the Great Britain Cycling Team, Capewell has a team of experts around her to help guide her through her injury. GBCT physiotherapist Hannah Crowley worked with Capewell to get her back on the track. "It was Sophie's hip that was the issue, so we were restricted when going into a deep hip flexion," she said.
"As a sprinter, she would typically do a lot of weight based work like squatting or leg press, but all of these require you to go into a deep hip flexion. So this is where we had to think of ways that she could still train but avoid working into that point where the pain is being caused – therefore, facilitating the healing process. However, we still wanted Sophie to maintain muscle mass as a competitive athlete, so we looked at things like squatting onto a box which limits the depth of that hip range.
Track cyclists need immense power in their legs, so you'll often find them putting in the hard work in the gym (Image provided by Sophie Capewell)
"We also used something called blood flow restriction where Sophie wore inflatable cuffs around her legs when she was doing exercises like bodyweight split squats. By reducing the blood flow to the area, you're then having to work harder. It's a bit like doing a set of exercises but with extreme lactic acid."
Read more: What now? Overcoming post-event blues
For any athlete, whether a professional or an amateur, being hit with an injury is never a nice experience, impacting not only physically, but also mentally. Going from training several times a day to being off the bike completely and limiting strength and movement can demotivate even the strongest of riders. However, Crowley looks for innovative ways in which she can challenge her athletes.
"I know they are in rehab, but they shouldn't be feeling like they are losing out or that they are going backwards. By trying to do something a bit different or something they've not done before, it'll bring back that element of challenge and therefore motivation," she said.
"You need to find training that'll have them see progress on a weekly basis as that is what they are used to seeing in their normal training. This is particularly important for people suffering with a long-term injury. Giving people them mini goals to hit helps people to keep going with their rehab."
Reaping the rewards of her hard work with Crowley and the team at British Cycling over the past few months, Capewell competed in the European Championships earlier this year and secured her first-ever senior European medal. Now she's back to winning medals, she's had time to reflect on what the past few months have taught her.
"I feel like the injury has taught me a few things like sticking to your own process," Capewell said. “Everyone is on their own journey, and even though the rehab work has been really limited and restrictive at times, I don’t feel I have any weaknesses anymore. I have come back stronger physically but also mentally.
"And winning the medal just topped it off. It is only since Christmas that I have been able to train at maximum effort and that has given me so much confidence going forward. I even tested my robustness when I crashed at the European Championships [February 2023] – much to my physios’ horror – and I am fine. However, I wouldn’t recommend crashing to test your body's resilience."
Back in action in the women's sprint in Jakarta (Image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)
Both Capewell and Crowley highlighted the importance of mobility when recovering from an injury, but also its importance in bulletproofing your body to prevent future injuries.
As cyclists we spend a lot of our time in a closed hip position, bent forwards, shoulders forward and with our heads down, so our bodies will naturally adapt to these closed angles. This position can lead to our bodies being unbalanced and leave us open to injuries. So how do we stop our cycling position from having a negative impact?
"Areas of the body that are the biggest cause of concern for cyclists are hips, shoulders and upper back from that closed position. To buffer against that people should do some easy stretching like yoga," Crowley said. "Strength training will also help to mitigate any niggles or injuries.
"For example, as a cyclist you develop your quads well and you can strengthen those easily in the gym. But what exercises could you do to target your hamstrings and glutes if you are having issues with your hips. It might not seem like it is having a direct impact on the area where you are experiencing an injury but they will facilitate the strengthening of the area as a whole – directly impacting on your performance."
Crowley used this in Capewell's rehab as she worked towards getting back on the bike. Having worked on those muscles that support the area as a first step, Capewell was then able to introduce the bike back into her weekly regime.
Capewell racing in the team sprint at the Tissot UCI Track Nations Cup in Eygpt with teammates Lowri Thomas and Emma Finucane (Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)
"I did use the bike in my rehab but just for easy spins – nothing maximal for quite a while," said Capewell. "It did take some time before I was back on the track and it wasn’t until around Christmas time that I was able to work up to 100% effort on the bike. Now I am at the end of my rehab, the majority of my training is back on the track and some in the gym."
Hopefully more medals are on the horizon for the track cyclist, especially in the lead-up to the 2024 Olympics in Paris. In the meantime, Capewell will continue to focus on her gym work to make sure all the muscles supporting her hips are super strong.
Crowley echoed this: "Obviously as a cyclist you're going to be keen to ride your bike, but it's finding the time to put in the work around cycling that'll enable you to do more on the bike long term. But make sure that it is done in a sustainable way. Jumping straight into a CrossFit class is not going to be the best way to implement cross-training in your routine, but instead focussing on your range of movement, your technique and appropriate load for your needs will."
* Cover image by Alex Whitehead