True Resilience: Bennett's Redemptive Return From Injury
He was on the front sprinting with only 200 meters to go—the win was just within reach. Then, in the blink of an eye, he hit the deck. Bennett doesn’t know exactly how it happened, but he hit the ground HARD.
“A teammate said that someone was trying to move up outside on the grass. Next thing I knew, my bike just violently whipped and sent me into the ground at 35 miles per hour,” Bennett recalls.
A cat three master’s racer, Bennett Hug was just seconds away from a potential win at the City Park Criterium, and in a split second everything changed. “When I came to a stop, I knew I was in pretty bad shape,” says Bennett, who was rushed to the hospital with a laundry list of injuries: 4 broken ribs, punctured lung, comminuted clavicle and 3 fractures of the scapula with a 3cm displacement.
“As soon as they said ‘chest tube’ I knew I wasn’t coming home that day,” he says, “I was hoping to be out in time for dinner . . . trying to find some positives!” Bennett exclaims, laughing.
He was discharged after several days in the hospital and underwent a nearly six hour surgery a couple of weeks later, “I woke up and it was the most excruciating pain I have ever felt . . . like someone took a hot knife and just stuck it in my shoulder. I was in tears.” Bennett says, as he recalls the surgery. “The surgeon said it was one of the top five worst shoulders he had seen.” The road to recovery had begun.
The doctors told Bennett that it would be 3 months before he could ride outside again. But it’s hard to keep a cyclist down for very long. He began to ride the trainer within a month, “It took about a month and a half before I could even touch my fingertips to the tops of the handlebars,” Bennett recalls. “I would just set the Wahoo to 50 watts just to try to do something.”
Bennett also spent countless hours in physical therapy. There had been extensive damage to his shoulder girdle and surrounding nerves, “It was like my arm wasn’t even attached to my body,” he recalled.
Despite the suffering, Bennett had never even considered stepping away from racing. “The thought never really crossed my mind that I wouldn’t ride. I couldn’t imagine having it taken away from me.”
Despite the slow progress, Bennett says that it was the friends and family around him that helped him to get through the tough times, “People would reach out and say: ‘you’ll be back, it will take a long time, but you’ll be back.’”
The progress was slow, but Bennett gradually recovered enough to ride outside nearly four months after the crash. He wasn’t sure how his body would respond after such a long layoff.
“I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to get back until I really started again.” Bennett was understandably itching to go full bore back into hard training and racing. He recalls his first ride back, “I think my first ride back outside was the Pedal 50!” referring to a 50 mile gravel race in Colorado.
Bennett was cleared to start riding again—but he knew that after several months of inactivity, and the physical trauma of the accident things wouldn’t be so simple. Before the accident, Bennett was a believer of the old-school training mentality “No Pain, No Gain.” He knew that he had the tendency to be a bit over-ambitious with his training and his body would pay the price.
“I didn’t really have structure, but I kind of just did things that I thought would make me stronger,” Bennett says. “I’d typically go into things really hard in October or November and try to start riding at the previous year’s peak level.”
Bennett would regularly do group rides and loads of race pace intensity year round. To him, if he wasn’t hurting in training, then it wasn’t really training.
“Every year, I’d kind of just ride myself into oblivion,” he says. He would often hit good form in the early season, but the fatigue would catch up to him. He often was overcooked by the time the important spring and summer races rolled around.
He knew that the old-school training approach hadn’t worked in the past, and he knew that if he went full bore into his usual training regimen right off the couch that things wouldn’t end up very well. Bennett had lost a lot of fitness and his shoulder was far from full strength.
“I was really itching to get back on the bike… but I knew that if I went back into that old approach of just riding as hard as I could all the time that I’d blow myself up, and come March or April, I’d be completely burned out.”
A proudly self-coached athlete for many years, Bennett decided that it may be time to investigate coaching to give him the guidance he needed. Hopefully, a coach would help him to reach his old level, while also allowing him to better manage his fitness throughout the racing season.
“I needed a program that would give me some structure, but I also needed something that would be specific to what I needed,” Bennett says.
While many structured ‘cookie-cutter’ training plans were on the market, these programs were not specific to the athlete and were not necessarily in his best interest. A personal coach would help to solve that problem.
“I also needed a program that would also allow me to focus on strength training which I had neglected badly over the years.” Bennett says.
After some investigating, Bennett decided to link up with Coach Landry at Aspire Cycling Coaching. Aspire Cycling’s program would offer him the structured workouts that would get him back to his best, but would also offer a holistic approach to training that included strength training, nutrition, and close communication with his coach.
“I felt like the only way that I would be able to reach my old level was to have someone help guide me,” he says.
For a hypermotivated individual who had been stuck on the couch for the months, one of the biggest challenges that Bennett faced was trusting the process. After months of rehab and easy trainer rides, Bennett wanted to go straight into hard intervals and max efforts to try to recoup the lost fitness. His coach had other plans though. In order to build up to the season, it was important to spend a few months establishing a solid base of fitness and focus on building strength in the gym. This would set Bennett up for a consistent season, and would allow him to reach a true peak of fitness for his big summer objectives.
For someone like Bennett, who had a masochistic view of training, the first few weeks were markedly different to what he was used to. The workouts focused on accumulating time in his aerobic zones, and improving his muscular strength which are both key components to a successful off-season program.
“I thought in my mind that I already had a good base,” Bennett recalls, “there was a constant nagging in my brain telling me ‘you need to be going harder.’”
Bennett often compared himself to others; “It was a constant mental battle. It was like, everyone else is going out and smashing themselves on this ride, and you’re like ‘I can’t go that hard,’” he recalls, “And then if I tried to do one of those rides it would completely blow up in my face and I’d be out the back because my fitness was just so far behind after the injury.”
When Bennett would get caught in a downward spiral, his coach was there to remind him of the bigger picture.
“The notes that [Coach Landry] would give me would remind me that it was November and that we had many months until the season started. Until I got the base that I thought I had, but really didn’t have, I wasn’t going to be prepared for the middle of the season.” That interaction helped to keep things in perspective.
“It was like: ‘Okay, this is why I got a coach. I knew for a fact that I would have tried to go too hard right off the bat . . . I just need to set this aside and shut up and listen,” Bennett laughs, “I felt like I always wanted to go harder those first few months.”
In spite of these feelings, Bennett stuck to the plan. He was making great gains in the gym and it was paying dividends on the bike. As the weeks progressed, Bennett’s fitness began to return. By the time January rolled around, he had already set a 5 minute power all time power record, and he hadn’t even started the high intensity yet.
After the base building was complete, Bennett’s coach began to prescribe higher intensity workouts to help get him ready for the season. He was finally back to suffering!
“I remember the first time doing a couple of five minute intervals; I thought I was going to die.” Bennett laughs.
The first few high intensity sessions were tough, but after a consistent winter, his form began to return. As each workout went by, the power numbers grew, and so did Bennett’s confidence. Bennett’s numbers in training were some of the best he had ever done by the time March rolled around. He was well prepared to begin the next step of his return: racing.
The Mental Battle
Bennett capped off his winter by putting in a big week of training with his team in Tucson, Arizona in March. His base was deep and his top end fitness was great. Bennett now faced perhaps his biggest challenge: getting back in the pack.
Bennett’s first race back was the Louisville Criterium. The nerves of racing again were messing with his head. The last time he raced, he was carted off in a stretcher. To make things harder, Bennett only had a few days to rest after a monster 30 hour week in Tucson. He missed the freshness to perform at his best. He lacked the confidence to really mix it up in the pack and ended up tail gunning for most of the crit before losing contact with two laps to go. It was a bit of a disappointing performance for Bennett after such a good build up.
Nonetheless, Bennett kept at it. The demons of the crash would often surface in those first few races. The fear of repeating such an incident would replay in his head. Fear of crashing made it hard to focus on riding, let alone trying to win. He found it difficult to fight for position in the pack and would waste a lot of energy.
As the weeks went by, his fears lessened. He realized that the chances of repeating such an incident were unlikely. He tried to shut everything else out and focus on what he needed to do to perform. By mid-summer, he had regained his confidence and had mostly overcome these struggles.
It was in June that Bennett really began to hit his stride. A PR at the Lookout Mtn. Hill Climb and an epic trip to Italy to race the Maratona dles Dolomites were good indicators that he was hitting top form right when it mattered most. He had a good level of fitness, but he was also fresh because of his conservative winter build up.
Bennett’s big objective for the year was Master’s Road Nationals in August. Managing his fitness throughout the season was key to making sure he was at his best so late in year. In the weeks leading up to Nationals, Bennett was racing almost every weekend. This helped to give him the “leg speed” that he needed, and also was a great confidence builder.
Now that he had his confidence back, he was back to racing the way he liked: attacking!
A strong all-rounder, Bennett never liked to wait for the final sprint. He was a regular fixture of the breakaways in the races leading up to Nationals. He was also setting power records almost every weekend, which were good indicators he was peaking at the right time.
Showing up at Master’s Nationals and racing the 50-54 open category was definitely out of Bennett’s comfort zone. It certainly presented a challenge for Bennett, who was a category 3 and relative latecomer to racing.
As race day approached, he knew that he had done his best to prepare for the race. Bennett held his own against the nation’s best and finished 28th out of 56th on a tough road course. Putting in such a solid performance was a validation that Bennett had overcome his injuries and the demons that plagued him. Over a year after his injury, Bennett had finally returned to his best. He was back.
Better, Faster, Stronger
It was a long journey back, but with the support of family, friends and his coach, Bennett had not only returned to his previous form, but he was even stronger than before. Mentally, Bennett was in a much better place. He was also much healthier. The nutrition advice and strength training provided by Aspire Cycling Coaching had paid big dividends for him.
Bennett learned through his experiences with Aspire Cycling that there is far more to a successful training program than going out and riding hard. He learned that what you do off the bike can have as much impact as what you do on the bike. He learned that seemingly little things can make a big difference.
“Learning how to fuel properly was a total game changer. It’s had a really big impact on how I feel in my daily life and on the bike,” Bennett says. He’d been able to recover faster, train harder, and improve his body composition.
“If you’re not fueling you’re fooling,” he says. Putting the right foods in at the right times had allowed him to consistently perform on the bike and it had given him more energy throughout the day.
Bennett had also grown attached to the gym. The gym had made his body stronger and more balanced. Everything was working synchronously.
The gym work improved his power on the bike and was also helping to prevent injury. It also prevented the loss of muscle and bone mass that is common in master’s racers. This ensured he would be able to compete at his best for many years to come. “I really started to feel the gains from being in the gym. . . I really believe that it paid huge dividends for me,” he says.
For someone who had been training hard several years, the gym added stimulus that helped his cycling to reach a new level. It also served to keep things more interesting in the winter. Instead of slaving away on the trainer all winter—Bennett could cut down on the trainer miles and see even more gains by spending time in the gym.
The benefit of having a coach meant that his time on the bike was higher quality. “The accountability was a huge part of it,” he says, “Instead of just going out and hammering all the time, I’m going out and training specifics . . . the things that will actually help me produce results.”
Instead of worrying about what training he should have been doing, he was able to focus on the execution of his training instead. Day in and day out, he could focus on getting the most out of himself, while his coach figured out what the best training was for him.
“The accountability, the nutrition, and the strength training have been hugely instrumental for me,” Bennett says.
From the ICU to being on top of his game, Bennett proved a lot of things in 2019. He proved that with hard work and discipline anything is possible. He proved to himself that he could come back from a serious injury. He proved that when you have the right people around you the sky is the limit. Watch Bennett race and his passion for this beautiful sport is evident. He loves the hard work and the feeling of accomplishment. He loves being able to help his teammates. He loves all of the great people he has met along the way. His plans for the future? To keep on doing what he’s been doing: riding, racing, attacking, and loving every minute of it.