Dealing with Injury

Chances are that as a triathlete you either have an injury or have recently recovered from one. Training across three sports supposedly reduces the risk, but I encounter a lot of injured athletes. Unfortunately I joined those ranks last Autumn, finally succumbing to a calf issue. We may divide our training across multiple disciplines, but we also do too much.

An injured triathlete’s attitude can make or break recovery. The right approach will speed up the process and provide long-term benefits. Burying your head in the sand when confronted by a niggle simply extends the problem. The response needs to be proactive with an emphasis on recovery. Fitness and performance take second place to being in full health.

Get a qualified diagnosis. I started working with an athlete experiencing pain in the lower leg when running. Assuming it was just shin splints – a catch-all diagnosis for pain below the knee – he hoped a foam roller would get him through it. Proper examination unfortunately discovered stress fractures in both shins. Diagnosis matters; a stress fracture is entirely different to a strained calf.

A good diagnosis should not only identify the injury, but also guide you through recovery. It’s not just a matter of what is wrong, but what you can do to make it better. You need a clear picture of what exercise is possible and what will delay recovery. Nobody wants to lose the fitness they carefully built, but healing is the priority.

The most important rule is no training that aggravates the injury. The diagnosis has probably ruled some things out, but if it makes it hurt don’t do it. The body experiences pain for a reason. Worst case you have to give up most of your plans, but until you’re healed you’re not going to train well. Recover fully then train fully.

Use the time to address broader issues. Technique, strength, any factor that may have contributed to the injury. When I’ve been unable to run I’ve used the gym; working on strengthening my calf, glutes and hamstrings. When I have run I’ve slowed my pace and concentrated more on my technique. Alone these won’t make me a faster athlete, but they will help me build there.

We practice three sports. Being injured in one may not rule out the others. View this as an opportunity. A single sport focus is a powerful way to boost performance. It’s not about losing run fitness, it is about taking swimming to the next level. The hours that would have been spent running can be used in the pool. Put the work in where you can.

There will come a point when you can consider normal training. The injury is gone or no longer severe and the body may be capable of normal training. Slow down. Resist the temptation to test yourself; you can’t dive back into your old routine. The longer the break from regular training the longer it will take to rebuild. Treat yourself like a beginner.

It will feel odd. It will feel slow. It will reduce the risk of repeating the problem. I’ve rushed into training believing an injury is gone only to trigger it again. My body wasn’t conditioned for the stress. Holding back may be frustrating, but going too far and starting the recovery process again is worse. I would rather see an athlete take off a week too many than return a week too soon.

Be realistic. Short-term goals will need adjusting; sessions should be scaled back and performed at lower intensity. Until you demonstrate that your body is resilient enough to take the stress training must be controlled. Again the process is slow. As you see improvements gradually increase the work load, careful never to push too far. It’s a fine line and safer to play things cautiously.

My injury resulted in four months without significant running. This long period left my legs weak and it’s taken time to rebuild. My aerobic engine outstrips the strength of my muscles and tendons. Slowly it improves; I have more good runs than bad. Even now I’m not ready to push. I tend to break if I run fast so I don’t run fast.

I’m being realistic. I’ve dropped out of the Reading Half-Marathon; I don’t plan to race till July. I hope I will be ready by then, but realise I’m unlikely to hit peak performance. I approached this season wanting a run focus, but unable to run well I’m focussing my energies on cycling and swimming. I’m working where I can.

Triathletes have a limited supply of patience, but in times of injury it’s needed. You will likely lose fitness, but consider the long-term. The fastest route to improved performance involves recovering first. Accept you cannot train as planned, adapt and be proactive in the healing process. Focus on the positives; find the opportunities to improve elsewhere. Work where you can.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.