How a Canadian cyclist got back on the road after cardiac surgery
This article is provided by Heart & Stroke.
Getting back to the things you love after cardiac surgery can be hard, but there are many motivating stories out there from real people who have gone through it and come back strong. Read on to hear about Alistair’s story and how he got back on the road.
Before he underwent double bypass and artery repair surgery in March 2021—and experienced post-surgery complications that kept him in the hospital for an extra week—Alistair used to cycle 60 to 80 km at a time.
The Markham, Ontario-based senior business consultant biked daily until doctors started to worry about his heart, although he felt fine. “You’re ready to drop dead,” a cardiologist told him when an angiogram showed the two main arteries of his heart were fully blocked, plus one of the branches of his arteries had never properly developed.
He was booked for emergency surgery, and his cycling was put on hold.
After being discharged from the hospital, the 54-year-old found himself sitting on the couch for three weeks, recovering. It was Alistair’s wife, Lisa, who insisted he needed to get up and start walking. But that was tough—not only was he tired and dispirited, but his foot was terribly swollen, which was caused by the incision site in his leg. “I didn’t have any footwear I could put on,” he says. The only shoes that fit him were his sandals.
So as the weather began to warm that spring, the couple started walking around the block. It was excruciating for Alistair: not only did it make his foot throb, but he has bad knees —that’s why he started cycling in the first place.
So, Alistair dragged out his fat-wheeled bike and began following Lisa as she took their dog on walks, pedalling at an incredibly slow pace. “They weren’t big walks. My dog is too old and she doesn’t like to walk either.”
By the summer, Alistair was riding regularly, and gradually increasing how far and how fast he’d go. “It was slow progress.” He’d do things like ride with his son to the gas station to get him a treat, and ride back.
What kept Alistair from going more than a few kilometers at a time was his greatly changed muscle strength and overall fitness level. “It was nothing to do with my heart,” he says. “It was the strength of my legs, and my ability to sit on a bike seat for long.”
Alistair’s cardiologist was fine with him cycling as much as he liked, just as long as he kept his heart rate below 110 beats per minute. “There would be just a little rise in the road, and my heart rate would be to 115 and I’d have to stop,” admits Alistair of those early months.
As he got stronger and motivated to ride for longer and harder, the limits on his heart rate became a barrier to getting serious about cycling again. Alistair went to his doctor and asked for more leeway. “I felt great and pushing myself made me feel like I was accomplishing something."
He got the green light to work without a limit but he imposed his own, aiming to keep his heart under 160 bpm. Even with permission to ride harder, Alistair has still found it difficult to get to his pre-surgery fitness level.
In April 2022, just a year and a month after his surgery, Lisa signed Alistair up for a 75 km ride. He was able to do 45 km. Later, in June, she signed him up for a 60 km event. “It took me freakin’ hours,” he recalls. “But I got it done.”
In many ways, Alistair has found the mental recovery from heart disease more difficult than the physical one. “I used to be a person who just gets up and goes. I need to get back to that person; I’m not really sure I know this version of myself,” says Alistair. “It’s tough.”
It’s not always easy and sometimes he struggles to motivate himself to get out on his bike, but the improvement continues, and now Alistair says he’s in pretty good physical shape.
Like Alistair, you can get back to the things you enjoy. Talk to your health care team about your options and know that you’re not alone in the journey you are on.
For many people, peer support from others living with heart conditions can make a huge difference. Check out these links to help you find the right peer support group for you.
- Community of Survivors - Heart & Stroke (currently hosted on Facebook)
- List of Canadian heart health peer support groups
Here are some more articles from Heart & Stroke to help you on your recovery journey:
Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you
© 2022, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
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