Rio Olympics Leg Break: How Athletes Recover After Gymnastics, Bike Injuries

More than 11,000 of the world’s best athletes have gathered in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics. They're in peak physical condition. But injuries mean that some of the globe’s top competitors — like French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd and Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten — will leave the games in far worse shape than when they arrived.

On Saturday, Aït Saïd broke his left leg as he attempted a vault landing. The gruesome injury, which was captured on video and went viral, occurred during the men’s qualification rounds. The gymnast broke both of his lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula.

Racing cyclists How do athletes recover after injuries? Photo courtesy of ReutersSrdjan Zivulovic

The following day, a high-speed crash during a road race left cyclist van Vlueten with three fractured vertebrae and a concussion after she flipped over her bicycle handlebars. 

"I am now in the hospital with some injuries and fractures, but will be fine," van Vleuten said on Twitter following the incident. "Most of all super disappointed after best race of my career."

What can Aït Saïd and van Vlueten expect out of the recovery process? For performers used to being in great condition, recovery can be particularly challenging — despite their underlying physical fitness. Athletes who sustain a major injury typically experience a strong psychological reaction, which could escalate to depression.

“Athletes with a strong athletic identity will define themselves on the basis of their sport – that is, their sense of worth and self-esteem is wrapped up in their sport, and being successful and associated with being an athlete,” Rebecca Symes​, a sports psychologist ​​who runs the sports consultancy Sporting Success in Britain​, told U.S. News & World Report.

Depressive symptoms in injured athletes can result from the significant loss of a physical outlet and a change in exercise schedule. Professional athletes could also face financial stress or be forced to change lifelong career plans after an injury.

Physically returning from an athletic injury can be a lengthy and difficult process, too. The outlook depends on many factors — the severity of the injury, natural healing processes, the athlete’s individual body and available rehabilitation methods.

As their condition improves, injured athletes resume strength and conditioning programs based specifically on the activity they’re training for. Once they’re free of pain and have been cleared by a doctor, injured athletes often must modify their playing techniques to protect them from further injury.

For amateur athletes whose closest contact with an Olympic Games is watching TV from the couch, many of the same lessons about recovery apply. A slowly intensifying strength and conditioning program, modified routines to accommodate new limitations, and keeping a positive attitude will help Olympic athletes Aït Saïd and van Vlueten — and you.

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