Team MIPS recently announced the addition of Kate Courtney and the SCOTT-SRAM MTB racing team to their roster and so we reached out to Kate Courtney ahead of her season debut in Elba, Italy over the weekend to ask her about the new partnership, the role head injuries have played in her career, and what she wishes more athletes knew about concussions. She also gave us some of her top tips for recovery and a list of some of her favourite books.
How did the partnership with Team MIPS come about?
Mips approached me about working together in the Fall alongside a team partnership and their ongoing relationship with SCOTT. As an athlete, it is incredibly important to me to have the best equipment possible when it comes to safety. I have had multiple concussions and also worked on a concussion education curriculum with CrashCourse while at Stanford, so the topic of head injuries in particular is very personal to me. Riding in a helmet that includes Mips makes me feel safer while training and racing at the top level and is a product I believe in. For me, it was an ideal partnership and one that I hope will inspire more conversation around head injuries among athletes.
How is being a part of Team MIPS different from just wearing MIPS helmets?
One of the primary reasons I am excited to join Team Mips is that I am able to work with a group of people who truly want to improve the world of sport by working to better understand and address head injuries. Their team cares not only about making a superior product but also about promoting education and understanding when it comes to safety in sport. I am excited to use my platform to promote a product I believe in alongside a cause that I find important and worthy of increased attention.
What is your personal experience with concussions throughout your career?
I have unfortunately had three concussions in my career. My first concussion happened when I was a first year junior competing for the US at the World Championships for the first time. I hit a tree in practice and had symptoms that I now know are typical of a concussion - nausea, headache, blurry vision and trouble concentrating. I still started the race, but was unable to finish. When I returned home, I still hadn’t been formally diagnosed with a concussion until I attended school and my teachers sent me home. The symptoms from this concussion lingered for months and had a significant impact on my ability to function.
Years later, when I experienced a second concussion, I had a much better idea of what to expect and how to best handle my recovery. I knew that, while a concussion is an invisible injury, your brain can be thought of like any other bone or muscle that needs rest to recover. I spent a week in a dark room with no screen time and little activity. Honestly, the recovery process can be quite miserable and isolating. However, this time my symptoms went away completely and never came back. I was able to return to riding and soon after racing at 100% after only a week of complete rest.
Since this second concussion, I have spent even more time learning about head injuries through my work with CrashCourse. When I hit my head again at World Championships this past Fall, I knew immediately that I could have suffered a head injury and made the tough decision to pull out of the race and follow a strict recovery process.
Could you detail what happened at World Championships last year and how you knew to make the decision to pull out of the race? What was your follow up and recovery plan?
Last year at the World Championships, I crashed hard in a high speed section of the course and hit my head. One thing people may not know is that you don’t even have to hit your head against the ground to get a concussion - it is more about the rate at which your brain hits the inside of your skull. While my head did not hit the ground incredibly hard, coming to a very quick stop from a high speed caused my brain to hit the inside of my skull very hard. Because my head did not necessarily hit the ground very hard, I may have brushed this off if I had not had experience with this type of concussion in the past and been able to recognize the symptoms.
Initially, I got up from my crash and tried to keep going. I rode to the tech zone to get my bike quickly fixed and made the choice to continue on. For a few moments, I felt a lot of adrenaline and pushed to catch the girl in front of me. Within a few minutes, however, the adrenaline wore off and my head began to ache in the center of my forehead. I felt dizzy and disoriented and as I continued, the headache grew worse and worse. I recognized that I may have a concussion and found my team manager on course. Pulling out of that race was very emotional but, in the end, it was an easy decision. As Frischi said, “well if you hit your head, then there is no other decision to be made”. It was of course disappointing, but I am proud to have been able to put my health first and make a tough choice that may have protected me from an extremely harmful second hit. Oftentimes, hitting your head a second time can be much worse than the initial injury.
My recovery process from this concussion was not very glamorous, but it worked. I put all screens away, spent a number of days in a dark room alone and did my best to let my brain recover. I listened to audio books, meditated and slept quite a bit. Luckily, I was able to stay in Switzerland for a few extra days before traveling home and within a few weeks, I was feeling completely back to normal. It is hard to describe what a concussion feels like if you have not experienced one, but it often just makes you feel “off” or like you are not yourself. After my first concussion, my symptoms persisted for months and it took a long time for me to feel completely back to normal. This time, with good decision making, a good team around me and a solid recovery plan, I was able to make a full recovery and get back to feeling like myself very quickly.
Do you have any lingering symptoms from any head injuries?
Luckily I have not had lingering symptoms from my concussion at the World Championships this year. I attribute this recovery to taking my head injury very seriously - from pulling out of the race to spending a week adhering to concussion protocols and resting my brain to the greatest extent possible.
What do you wish more athletes knew about concussions?
I wish that more athletes understood both how serious concussions can be and also that there are practical ways to both minimize the severity of concussions and ensure that they heal completely. When I suffered my first head injury as a junior, I did not know how serious and long lasting the symptoms could be. If I had taken it more seriously initially, my recovery may have been much quicker and I likely would not have suffered from such severe lingering symptoms.
How challenging was the last year for you with the goal posts continually moving?
The past year was very challenging for me. In 2019, I prequalified for the US Olympic team with a 5th place at the World Championships in Mont Sainte Anne and was very focused on preparing to give my best possible performance in Tokyo over the summer. With the games postponed and all races in the United States canceled, my summer definitely didn’t look exactly as I had pictured it! All in all, however, the past year has provided me with so many opportunities. I was able to spend more time at home than I have in the past five years and enjoy the extra time with friends and family. From a training perspective, I was able to put in more volume than in a typical year as we did not have to travel. Finally, from a mental perspective, I think this year away from racing gave me an important understanding of how much I love to compete and what a privilege it is to be able to race at the top level. I will certainly take many positives and many lessons with me into my 2021 season!
What did a typical week of training look like for you this winter? How many hours? Who do you train with? Any typical workouts you can share?
Typically, a week of training involves 3 days in the gym and 7 days on the bike. My hours as well as the composition of those hours changes a lot by the time of the year. In the fall and winter, we are mainly doing volume and base training on the bike and in the gym. As the Spring races approach, my training becomes more focused on high intensity efforts and I do a lot less volume as I need to give my body time to recover between big workouts. Then, it’s off to the races!
It seems that you take your rest days really seriously from your Instagram account. Was that always the case? How often do you take a complete rest day and what does that look like?
I am a firm believer that you can only train as hard as you recover. For me, recovery days are just as important as the hard training days as they allow me to prepare my body and mind to train at the highest level. I have at least one easy day on the bike per week but take complete rest days from the bike and gym at least once a month. On those days, I make sure to get good sleep, nap, do yoga and use recovery tools like the Normatech Boots. And of course walking with my new dog Monte which brings a lot of joy as well as a recovery boost!
I saw that you started a book club this winter with runner Colleen Quigley. What are some of your favourite books?
The Obstacle is the Way - Ryan Holiday
Endure - Alex Hutchinson
Atomic Habits - James Clear
Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell
Untamed - Glennon Doyle
What other races are you hoping to compete in ahead of Tokyo 2021?
Ahead of Tokyo, my focus will be on performing well at the World Cups. Of course, we also have two World Cups and World Championships after the Olympics. While Tokyo is my primary focus for the year, there are certainly many other opportunities to compete at the top level.