Cycling to Recovery After Brain Injury

Cycling to Recovery After Brain Injury

I heard it early on—and I cringed.

Five words that will literally define the rest of my life: Brain injury recovery is lifelong.

Over the years since my traumatic brain injury, I’ve come to look at my own TBI as a wound to my soul. Such is the depth of pain and anguish by all who are impacted by a brain injury experience.

If I had just broken my arm and nothing more on that cold November day back in 2010, I would have been the only one to feel the effects of the accident. Sure, my wife, Sarah, might feel for my discomfort, but a broken arm really doesn’t impact anyone except the person wearing the cast.

But add a brain injury to the mix and everything changes. My wife was, and remains, profoundly affected by my injury. My parents lost the son they had raised, only to have a new David in their lives. My children had their dad removed from their lives in two ticks of a clock. Now you see him; now you don’t! Has anyone seen the Dad who raised us?

As I close in on my six year accident anniversary, I have learned some very important lessons.

Treating my brain injury encompasses body, mind, and spirit. If my spirit is unhealthy, my ability to function as a survivor falls by the wayside. Equally as important is to be wary of what I think, as my mind is not always my friend. Negative mental chatter can ruin any day.

Staying as physically fit as possible has been a game-changer for me. I count myself as one of the lucky ones as I was able to get back on a bike after my cycling accident. It took almost a year, however, to leave the comfort of my neighborhood – such was the stranglehold that PTSD had over me.

Even now, years later, I prefer cycling on roads through cow pastures than most any other road. The sounds of a car from behind or of an ambulance siren can reduce me to panic in short notice. But the benefits I receive from my daily cardio are worth the price of admission.

Most every afternoon, I take a bike ride. And for ninety minutes a day, I come close to forgetting about my brain injury. I watch the trees explode with leaves in the springtime, pass fields of wildflowers in the summer, and am blessed to cycle through waves of yellows, oranges, and reds as fall colors abound in New England.

My sporadic lack of impulse control means that I occasionally fight with my weight, the call of sweets more powerful than my ability to refrain. My daily cycling helps keep my weight in check. I feel more mentally sharp after I ride.

Many years ago, a member of the medical community shared a bit of information with me. “There is evidence that daily exercise speeds brain injury recovery,” he shared.

When I get my daily exercise, I feel like I am doing my part to help recovery. It’s like having some extra skin in the game. I come away grateful as well. Many survivors I have met over the years have seen a fate far different than mine. I count myself as one of the lucky ones as it could have been so much worse. I’m still able to cycle. Not everyone can.

Every year, I gear up for an annual event – my yearly century ride. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a century ride is a one-day, 100+ mile bike ride. Conveniently, it’s a hundred miles from our front door to my parents’ home in the central part of New Hampshire. This past spring, I completed my tenth consecutive yearly century ride.

This is not a ride for the faint of heart. The largest hills loom at the end of the day. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s more of a mental event than a test of physical endurance. This years’ time was a speedy six hours and forty-five minutes – my best time ever. Not bad for a mid-fifties year old guy!

The last ten miles are thankfully flat. I sometimes cramp up and have to walk a portion of it. Sweat mingles with tears. Since my brain injury, at least once toward the end of every century ride, I break down in sobs as the emotional floodgates open.

These are not tears of sadness.

It is while I am alone with my thoughts for hours on end, pushing my body harder than I should, that the weight of how far I’ve come hits me hard. I was told early on to expect a life of handicap and hardship.

Yet one mile at a time, I have proven so many to be wrong. And I prove again to myself that I can do just about anything I put my mind to.

Comments (17)

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Very practical question -- A few months out from "TBI" I'm recently able to get around the house without a cane, but stairs remain a challenge. For nearly two decades my bicycle was my primary transport. Initially I could mount and pedal my bike on a trainer. That ability was lost for a couple of months but I think I'm ready. Assuming I can swing my leg over the bike, pedal, and dismount ----- what is the next step? How do I graduate from pedaling a trainer in basement to actually getting on the road (I plan to build up my stamina on the local bike path before resuming commuting)? Find the right PT/OT? Just go do it? What are the practical steps to be taken, steps that optimize success and minimize risk of injury?

Great article, I just got home from the hospital with tba as a parting gift. I don’t remember the fateful bike ride at alI.I was told this is a good thing.I did find a video that takes place right after the emergency helicopter leaves the scene .Im not allowed to ride my bike yet. Any advice you can offer?

Inspirational! Thanks for sharing.

Hi David, Thanks for sharing this part of your journey. We briefly met on-line years back after my TBI. Your book helped me gain a little perspective at that time and i am grateful for it and your words of support. I have continued to ride and grown a small bicycle lifestyle biz since that awful day back in July 2010. It took a few years ;) but I'm still fighting the good fight and pedaling on...
See you on the shiny side.
Fond Regards, Silvana

Thanks David for putting your thoughts down on paper. I suffered a traumatic brain injury on 24th May 2017, while taking part in a 4 day Mountain Bike Race. This happened on DAY 1! I had a bit of a reputation for saying to the guys, 'Wait for me at the bottom.' As I was a lot slower going down than cycling up the hills. ( Funny that). I had passed others going up but was going 35mph down the hill. It was quite clear I am told, but my front wheel tapped a stone and I went straight over the handle bars. If I didn't have the helmet I had on I could have been a gonner for sure, My handle bars went into my left hip, I had cuts and stitches on both knees and face. Fortunately the surgeon was top notch and I have NO SCARS on my face. My husband was told the first 10 days were critical. ( But my husband had a quite confidence that I was NOT GOING TO DIE. I too had a very encouraging dream that God was with me).

My recovery has been really good on the whole, but I did have a fall shortly after I came out of hospital. It was while a friend was taking me through various movements, which I was used too. But I think he wasn't aware of 'Brain Trauma' I let out a sound stating PAIN but was told it was ok and to keep going. Well my body said no way and collapsed! I stopped breathing apparently and ended up back in hospital overnight. This seemed to put me back a great deal. I had an MRI and it showed I had a frozen shoulder, which did take a while to over come. Fortunately I do have 5 Wattbikes in my Spin Cycle Studio, which I am now able to ride.

Something I am very aware off is how others treat you......I am sure it is not intentional nevertheless it happens. Some just find it too hard to see me and others just don't know what to say. I am still ME just not as able bodied as I was! Through time I am improving and walk daily with my beautiful dog Paddy, a Weimaraner, who is brilliant! He leads me up mega big hills and through many bush paths. We walk for hours and many klms. I know that exercise is so good for you and I know the many benefits. I like you know so many others are not as fortunate as us and when I have a down time I remind myself of that fact. Look at what you have and buck up is what I tell myself. I am so grateful for my husband Simon , he has been my right hand man. I am told with Brain Trauma you can get the giggles... well I certainly do. Sometimes I can't stop laughing, but hey it's better than crying hey! ( My tear ducks seem to have dried up so I can't cry or smell or even taste! Very strange. But it is early days yet so we are hoping.

Well I will close now but I really appreciated your contents David, well done for your 100 Klm Rides. Keep up the good work .

(sorry, I wrote the previous commeny last December, I was still going through REHABILITATION, (still am), and I realised I wrotr 2017 when it was actually 2018, May. This bump on my head does this to me, ha, ha.

Hello Joy! I really appreciated reading your comments. I just wanted to ask, did your ability to, “cry” ever return? I am about a year out from my accident on my bike and I can’t cry as well. (TBI) The emotions are there, but no tears.

I couldn’t actually cry tears but it was only after giving birth that seemed ability to resume

About eight years ago I contracted West Nile virus, which quickly led to encephalitis. The ataxia was astounding, for the most part I couldn't do anything at all. I was bed-ridden for a year, couldn't drive a car for a year and a half, and walking could only be done with a cane or a walker. I'm better now, I can walk reasonably well, recently was able to go down an escalator, (didn't dare for years) and functioning day to day is still improving.

Before my disease/brain injury, I rode a bike every day to work and between 8-12 miles on off days. This was mostly street riding with trails on a mountain bike. I haven't got on the bike for eight years, and I've missed riding ever since I could no longer do it. So today, I got back on (sort of) and found that my balance is still non-existent and was so bad and scary that I didn't dare try to pedal. Even getting on and off is difficult without falling down.

No way I can do this yet, but I won't give up, and will ride again someday. I just wish I knew where to start.

I suffered a TBI after being hit by a car cycling to work. Unfortunately I had to be medically retired. I suffer mostly with fatigue, irritability and at times behavioural issues. I try to cycle everyday as it makes me feel alive again. My fatigue catches up with me after I do it but I think it's a price worth paying. The sense of achievement, wellbeing and positivity that it gives me for a few hours helps recover mentally from my accident.
Thanks for sharing your story it provides inspiration!!
Good luck

Your story rings so true with me.  Over two years ago I had an acute onset of terrifying symptoms ... like the hard drive in my brain had gone haywire.  My Mom died of ALS so I thought this could be the end for me.  Doctors were clueless .... I'd had no blow to my head but an MRI showed some shrinkage of my cerebellum ... long story short doctors couldn't help and when they can't help they just wish you'd go away.  So I did & I went and got a great bike.  And began riding and riding and riding ... about 100 miles a week (but I may have to try the century ride soon).  The emotional component I totally get although now that I'm aware of it, I know it's coming on a can try to control it.  Yes, it's not the life I'd hoped for but there are other's who suffer so much more (although, I look with envy at the people who I pass on the bike trail who are clueless to how incredibly lucky they are to work & function properly.  Anyway, just wanted to let you know it was good to hear what you had to say because I too feel that by doing something I'm at least living the best life I can right now.  Take care!  

You are an inspiration to this wonderful brain injury community. Thank you for sharing each step of your journey!!

Thank you or sharing part of your journey with us. Life with a TBI is a totally different experience. Like a box of chocolates you never know what you get next. Some days are good, some are awesome, sometimes long naps are needed. Your website, blog are just what we in the community need.  I wish I never had endured a TBI but I am so grateful for the lessons I have and continue to learn. Thank You New Friend. 

Staring at my other bikes in garage as I’m not allowed to ride them,is the hardest part.Im 55 and my TBI occurred on April29,2020 Any advice you can offer.?

Same here, i am 64, been staring at my bike a lot since being assaulted on 31 10 2021 six months ago, have my first appointment with neurological re-habilitation next week, i am hoping that they help me have a goal to work for and that is to get back on bike again, seeing i have lost driving licence because of TBI it would give me a bit of freedom back if i could work to this goal of riding again etc.
The only advice i can give and from my experience is this ( do not give up on yourself, set goals, and remember dreams do not happen over night, be realistic, be kind to others as its not their fault of your predicumant, and time is a great healer).
If one goal cannot be achievable then get another goal, example if cycling not achievable then have a goal like walking longer distance.

Hi! I am 66 and recently came off my bike, 2 bleeds on brain and advised not to ride again! But I am keen to! Am keen to chat to you as to how you cope? My energy is not as good as it was and I can’t drive until Feb! Normally I’m very active! Keen to chat if you have time kind regards Caroline

I was in a wreck thanks to a terribly icy roadway on an interstate highway. The car went spinning and flew off the road into a mesquite patch six or so feet below the road. A father and son came down, got me out of my car, got all my things out, called the police and waited with me until a state trooper arrived. The trooper drove me to the nearby hospital. I had a small cut on my jaw, thanks to a stiff cut by a mesquite branch. A year later I had trouble riding my bike, still lurched walking, my balance was off. I was not myself. A lot of things happened that distracted me from thinking TBI, but now I thought I might be back to normal. I bought a commuter bike and find I can't keep my balance. I am seeing a physical therapist who is helping me with exercises to help my balance. I don't lurch as much, have no persistent headaches, only some memory loss. I think I may make an appointment with a neurologist