Training and Racing With Injuries

The impetus for this blog, as you may have already guessed, is my dealing with an injury that has affected by ability to train for my first “A” race of the year. I’ve been doing this a long time and have been relatively lucky when it comes to injuries; I’ve had them but have not missed many races because of them. While dealing with these injuries over the years I have had to visit all the different kinds of trained medical professionals, from orthopedic surgeons to chiropractors to physical therapists to personal trainers to massage therapists, all of whom have helped me work through my injuries and made it possible for me to resume training as soon as possible or continue with my training while dealing with the injuries.

But aside from the actual injury itself, whether from some traumatic event or from over-training or over-use, the issue is how do you know when you should seek professional medical advice and then which kind of doctor or professional is the right one to choose? I’ll leave the second issue for another discussion, as it is so varied that it needs its own space, so for now I’ll just focus on how to properly assess your injury to determine how to proceed with your training.

As I see it there are three levels of injuries as follows:

  1. The injury is so severe that it affects your everyday life. By that I mean you’re hurting when you get out of bed in the morning, when you try to get cleaned up and ready for work, when you’re getting in and out of your car, when you’re sitting at work, when you’re grocery shopping etc.
  2. The injury is severe but you can get through the day without too much pain, but training, at even easy intensity levels or distance, makes it worse and affects your ability to train at the level you want.
  3. The injury is only noticeable while training but you are able to “train around it”, meaning by reducing the intensity, replacing a flat ride/run with a hilly one, or reducing the time training, you’re able to continue training, albeit not as hard.

While the distinctions between these three levels is pretty obvious, when an “athlete” is in training mode they tend to disregard the obvious and continue on with their training regardless. While we juggle life, work, socializing (outside the group we train with), family obligations, and training, it’s easy to downplay an injury in the early stages, and this is one of our biggest mistakes, allowing a relatively minor injury to progress to the next level. This is why assessing an injury early on is the key, as follows.

If you find yourself with a Level 1 injury then you need to stop training and reclassify yourself as an Injured Athlete. Your only job right now is to deal with the injury, possibly on your own, or by visiting the appropriate medical professional to get help. Once you have a diagnosis and a plan forward for recovery and you begin to execute that plan and see positive results in your recovery, only then can you consider restarting your training. This can take weeks or even months in the worst case scenarios, but racing triathlons, or whatever your primary sport is, for us age groupers, is just a hobby, and any hobby that is affecting our ability to perform the most basic of everyday tasks without constant or severe pain, is not a healthy long term approach to any sport. At this level of injury you risk missing an entire season while it lingers on, so taking a training “time out” now and maybe missing a race or two, is far better than writing off the whole season and really losing your fitness base.

When dealing with a Level 2 injury you may be able to salvage your upcoming race(s), albeit with a slightly lower intensity of training. We can work around that by lowering our expectations for the race, changing down to a shorter distance race if that is an option, or in the worst case skipping the race and focusing on the injury and another race on the calendar. Most importantly though is to not let an injury at this level get any worse! Not being able to train or race at our highest potential is one thing, not being able to move through the rest of the hours in the day in our “normal life” without pain or discomfort is completely different.

If you’re having to deal with a Level 3 injury then common sense should be your guide on how to continue, and again, don’t ignore your injury to make sure you don’t move up to the next level where you really have to pay attention. If you can continue to train by modifying the intensity and distance, while only having to get a massage or work with a physical therapist, consider yourself lucky. If you find the right person to help you, preferably one that works with athletes on a regular basis and understands our mindset and drive to get back to normal and resume training ASAP, then you might not have to make any adjustments to your races, given that you catch the injury in time and it’s not too close to race day.

I believe that if you correctly assess the level of your injury and act upon it sooner than later, and hopefully in the early stages before it moves up a level, then your training and racing season can go on.

As for my own injury this year, it was a low back muscle that I likely strained while doing a lot of stoop labor in the garden while installing a rock border. I continued to train with it, trying to take it easy, but with a hilly Olympic distance triathlon as my first race of the year, Wildflower, with high hopes of repeating my past success there (winning my AG the past two times), I wound up with a jacked up back after a hard training weekend. I opted for a massage to try and resolve the problem, thinking it wasn’t in need of more attention than that, and I felt a lot better. I took an easy week (actually I got sick so I was forced to miss a few workouts), and thought the issue was behind me, but it wasn’t. After a few hard days of training it returned and now I went more aggressive in my approach, seeing my friend and training partner who is a Chiropractor. We’ve worked on this problem before so I knew what to expect, and it took multiple sessions to get my back to calm down so that riding and running wouldn’t continue to jack it up so I could race.

The week before the race I asked my friend if he thought I was good to go to race the Olympic distance and he gave me a measured response. He basically said that would be up to me but, playing the Devil’s advocate, asked if I would be able to accept the outcome of the race if I didn’t race to my usual standard, and what other races were on my calendar? Of course I didn’t like the idea of racing having missed many key run workouts for 3-4 weeks, knowing I could cover the distance but probably not very quickly coming after the 40k bike which would cause my back to lock down. We also discussed the fact that racing the full Olympic distance tri might set my training back several (or potentially more!), weeks, and could I deal with that?

Basically the answer was no, so I made the decision to change my entry to the new on-road sprint distance tri which wouldn’t put as much strain on my back, allowing me to take a shorter recovery period before ramping back up for my next race several months later. This turned out to be a wise decision (on occasion I do make the right choice, having made the wrong choice in the past and having learned from it, or by listening to professional advice), I raced and did well and while my back feels good I will continue to be cautious with it for another week or so before building my training back up for my next race, another Olympic distance tri, up in June Lake.

I took what I thought was a Level 3 injury and tried to resolve it, but then learned that it really was a Level 2 injury which I knew could get worse, and modified not only my training but also my race distance. In the end I was happy to be able to race, I gave it 100%, I’m still treating my back like it’s a Level 3 injury, not ignoring it, while working on strength training to rebuild strength and feeling good that I still have many races in the season and I hope to start each of them without any injuries.

I hope you can determine what injury you have, find the right person to help you, and that you too make the right choices before the injury progresses to a point where you have to skip races and especially before it affects your ability to move about your normal life without pain or issues.

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