A while back I published the Triathlete’s #1 Training Mistake, training too easy on hard days and too hard on easy days. Today I offer you the triathlete’s #2 training mistake, incorrectly dealing with our injuries. We’re famous for training through injuries, sometimes making them worse, but I think the bigger issue is that we return from injury too soon and/or return to hard training too soon. See if any of the following scenarios, all based on fact, sound familiar.
- You haven’t been swimming for 2+ weeks due to a sore shoulder or sore back. You’ve been seeing a physical therapist or Chiropractor and have been cleared to return to the pool. You plan on starting out easy, staying in the back of the lane and getting out early. You show up on “challenge Wednesday”, so the sets are lane base minus and you’re working hard, but you feel good. You make your way towards the front of the group as others take a break or get out early (like you’re supposed to be doing…), and eventually you’re right behind the leader, pushing it. The next day your shoulder/back is tight and sore and you skip another week and a half of swimming, while getting more PT or bodywork.
- You haven’t ridden with anyone in three plus weeks due to a sore knee, likely chondromalacia patella, a.k.a. overuse syndrome. You’ve been running easy on soft surfaces a couple times a week, while using an elliptical machine in the gym, but have skipped all other leg exercises. You rejoin your Saturday morning group planning on just riding short and heading back for breakfast. It’s a small group and at the turn-around everyone else is heading up for a couple of climbs so you tag along, thinking you can just take it easy. Feeling rested you stay with the group, and feel pretty good, until you head back and hit a small hill in the road, where you feel a sharp pain in your knee. You spend two more weeks off the bike before heading out to ride by yourself to see how you feel.
- You spent the off-season and early season focusing on your run, doing a half marathon to get ready for a half IM later in the season. You wind up with plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis or a minor stress fracture, and head to your physical therapist for help. They prescribe rest and rehab, no running for 2/3/4 weeks at a minimum, and then a couple weeks of two 20-30 minute runs a week to determine if you’re ready to resume normal training. You’re worried about your half IM and after two weeks of slightly longer than prescribed running, you join your local running group for a Tuesday night track practice, vowing to run down a group and stop at 2/3 distance. You start at the back of the group, but eventually you wind up with the leaders, but running out in lanes 2/3, longer/harder than they are. It feels so easy that you decide to complete the whole set without issue. The next morning when you get out of bed and stand up your foot is killing you and can barely put any weight on it. You don’t run for another four weeks.
When you think about it, as triathletes we can hardly be blamed if we fit the mold that causes us to do things like this, because we are after all wired to train, and train hard. As a rule we’re more A Type personality than B type, we thrive on endorphins, tend to have ADD so we train to regain focus, and we can’t sit still too long without thinking we could be out training. Did I mention that we can also be somewhat competitive? So while we’re home rehabbing our friends/competitors are out training and getting FASTER and we’re NOT!
There’s also the fact that we sign up for races way in advance, multiple races, so not training means we’re going to show up not ready to meet our goals for the race, and finish slower (further down the order), than our friends/competitors, so our egos take a hit. Let’s not forget how expensive these races are, not all of which offer refunds or the chance to withdraw and apply your fee to the following year’s race.
So what are we as triathletes supposed to do? Well having gone out and trained a few times when I probably shouldn’t have, pushed myself harder than my body was ready for, I have learned that it’s better to be patient and let my body heal before returning to my previous training levels, and you should too.
The key though is realizing and acknowledging one thing, that you are in fact an injured athlete and NOT and athlete in training. Once you accept that, only then can you work your way through the other issues, like not racing in top form, or having to skip a race, etc. I learned this lesson the hard way myself, years ago.
I had raced a late fall marathon, done quite well, and then took 4-6 weeks off from my focused training. I started out easily enough in January, feeling recovered and ready to begin training for a summer half Ironman. Late in the month I strained my low back but thought I could stretch and do some yoga to get right. I woke up one morning in pain and unable to reach down to pull on my shoes so I went to a chiropractor for help. After he listened to my story, did a physical analysis and some body work, I asked him when I could return to training. He flat out told me that I was not to consider myself an athlete in training, that I was an injured athlete and all training was off the table until I had recovered enough to start again. I was somewhat taken back, but thankful for his direct response.
The thing is, he was absolutely correct in saying that. My body was unable to accept the stress of everyday life, no less hard training; without thinking about it I just assumed I would be okay to train. His words ring true in my head till this day, and hopefully now they will ring true in your head too.
When you’re injured your body can not accept any more strain and get stronger, you will just be fighting yourself and likely just making the injury worse. The first thing you need to do is address your injury and then and only then, should you resume training. Even then you need 2-3 weeks of easy training to get your body used to working out again before starting to push up the intensity.
Triathlon is a lifetime sport, something we incorporate into our lives every day, possibly for the rest of our lives. Don’t be in a hurry just because you have one race on the horizon. No matter how big that race is, there will always be another day, another race, when you’re not injured, and that you can train for and race and be proud of your results. Pro triathletes and some elite age-groupers might disagree and will push themselves forward regardless, and be willing to pay the price after wards. But for the rest of us, the average age group triathlete, we need to realize that life, our jobs, and our significant others need to come first.
Be smart, be patient, and work through your injuries before returning to training hard and you will be in this sport for a long time, trust me.