Road To Recovery: Bike Touring After A Back Injury

Emil is going on a bike tour from his home in Sweden to Beijing, China. Hundreds of other cyclists will make similar journeys this year, but Emil’s is special because in 2009 he couldn’t walk.

Emil On His Bicycle

He was injured in a serious skiing accident and had to go through a painful recovery just to learn how to walk again, let alone ride a bicycle. Now – after a lot of medical treatment – Emil is much better but still suffers some back pain.

In this interview, Emil tells us how he stayed motivated through a long recovery and how he deals with back pain while cycling.

1. You had a very long rehabilitation. How did you keep your hopes and motivation up during that time?

Emil's back injuryOne year before my accident, I was dreaming of doing a world bicycle tour. The moment I woke up after the operation I had only one thing in my mind: to fulfill my dream no matter what it would take.

As I could not walk, I planned on changing my transportation from bicycle to a wheelchair. With my will set and a very clear goal ahead I slowly became stronger and the medical personnel were surprised about my fast rehabilitation. After weeks I started to walk with the help of a “walk table” and after months I used crutches.

After 5 months I sat on my bike again and made a 500 meter tour. It was the most painful ride of my life and I almost thought to myself ‘How in the world am I going to bicycle across the world?’ but I didn’t.

Instead I was happy about the small improvements and after a dozens of shorter trips I bicycled 80 km during one day.

2. Now that you’ve largely recovered, you’re planning a big trip. Can you tell us about it?

My plans have taken shape and on the 20th of March this year I will start my trip from Stockholm, Sweden heading for Beijing, China. With my background and all I have gone through I have decided to raise money for disabled kids and young people. I will be taking it easy, trying not to cover more than 60-70 km a day. My main focus is to overcome my weaknesses and try to inspire others to aim towards their own goals.

3. You’re still suffering some back pain, however. How will you deal with that during a bike tour?

Well the trip is going to be tough, very tough. My legs aren’t what they used to be and my back is messed up in all sorts of ways.

I have learned to always use pain as a motivation. During periods of pain, days when everything goes wrong, I will use the same motivation as during my rehabilitation. I will look forward and find happiness in the small improvements.

Pain is like an allergy. It’s a result of your body’s reaction to a foreign substance. I can not control the cause of my pain but the spreading and the feeling of it is very much based on my motivation and how I encounter it. If I am afraid of being in pain it will grow stronger and feed on that very fear. If I let pain decide whether I am going to bicycle or not, I am not in possession of my own will and if that happens life is worth nothing.

Emil Lifting His Bike High

4. Are there exercises you do, that other cyclists with back pain might also be able to benefit from?

I would gladly recommend yoga. There are of course millions of different forms and exercises but going to some classes and learning the basic postures is very helpful. I always, except in pouring rain, do some yoga during lunches and longer breaks.

What you really are looking for is creating circulation. Pain is often caused by body products being left in you muscles and by creating blood flow you will flush out a lot of these. You can also achieve this by heating the painful area. I always carry a warm water bottle and fill it with some boiling water from my camp kitchen. It’s great when crawling into your sleeping bag!

A TENS machine might also do some good. It’s practically a device that emits small electric charges into the painful area. I am no scientist but the easy explanation is that these electric signals overcharge the body’s sensory cells and thus blinding your nerve system from the pain. You can buy a TENS machine almost anywhere. Make sure it’s low-weight and powered by batteries.

5. Does your back pain mean you will have to stop camping? Getting in and out of the tent and crouching around a campfire can’t be good for your back.

I would never stop camping. Haha. It’s too fun. Doing fun stuff often makes my mind forget about pain for a while. I have invested in a much thicker sleeping mattress and will of course use hostels a bit more than I had planned on doing before my accident. It is always nice with a warm and soft bed once in a while.

6. What advice do you have for other cyclists suffering from back pain?

  • Take it easy. Don’t panic if your average bicycle day ends in 30-50 km. It’s really better than not bicycling at all.
  • Don’t be afraid of hitching a ride, you can always persuade someone by pointing at your aching back (or even better, a scar).
  • Move around on the saddle and use a lot of different riding positions. Try to involve different muscles all the time, thus not creating tension in a specific muscle.
  • Take breaks often and try to do some yoga

If you’d like to know more about Emil’s trip, go to his website The Big Trip or watch this fantastic video. (Note: Emil will be cycling solo because the friend in the video has decided not to go on the trip)

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  1. Hugh
    19th September 2011 at 4:11 am #

    Well done, I wish you a great trip. I have just come back to bicycling after decades out of the saddle. I too have a lower back injury and have found that cycling is the only exercise, that does not actually raise the constant, background pain level. A few hundred metres walking and I am in significant pain. This morning I road 30k in a little over 1h11m.

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