The Injured Triathlete

The Injured Triathlete

So I was recently asked on twitter by a triathlete for some hints and tips recovering from a severe injury picked up in base training. He wanted to know what he might be able to do both physically and psychologically to improve his situation.

The injured triathlete has competitive aspirations over middle distance triathlon, but has struggled with leg pain over the last couple of seasons. In late 2013 he was diagnosed with a stress fracture (having raced through the injury) and after 2 months out then encountered persistent problems with the same leg throughout 2014. Despite this he still managed to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships for 2015. At the end of the season, he went for some scans and was diagnosed with compartment syndrome. After undergoing surgery (a fasciectomy) he unfortunately then picked up an infection, and this is where we find ourselves. He’s gained a little weight through inactivity, and his thoughts are unsurprisingly focused on his hard earned slot at the World Champs at the end of August. He’s also entered Ironman Wales in mid-September.

So what would I recommend? Well there are lots of things I could say, and lots of ways I could say it. I haven’t spent time building a relationship with this athlete, so can’t even guess at what he might respond best to. Therefore I’ll say the things I think he needs to hear, not necessarily what he might want to hear. It therefore may seem a little blunt. It will be quite general and not partitioned into psychological and physical, but I hope of some use.

Be Realistic 

A little over 1 month ago, you’ve had surgery. Read that again. Thats right, someone has knocked you out with drugs, and cut you open. They’ve done this because you have a chronic problem that has interrupted your training for the last 2 years. Sounds pretty stressful to me. To make things worse, you’ve also had an infection, another major stressor on your body. Hobbling around on crutches always seemed so cool when you were 7 years old, but in reality it sucks (I guess at 7 most of us didn’t have jobs and meals to cook). Realistically, recovery from fasciectomy is going to be at least a 3-4 month timeline before you get back to any consistent form of training for triathlon. I’d change that for you if I could. But I can’t. No one can. It’s just the way it is. You need to accept this first and foremost - regardless of what it might mean for your season and the races you’ve qualified for. This means that for now, you need to let go of how you think you might do at the Worlds. You need to let go of how you think you might do at Ironman Wales. You need to do this because you can’t yet accurately predict what you’ve got to work with. There are many obstacles to first negotiate.

Let’s not wallow though. We can use realism for the positive too. Time goes on. The days will tick by and you will recover. Get professional advice and implement it. This doesn’t mean smashing it out of the park the first set of physio exercises you are prescribed and setting yourself back even further. This means trusting and believing in your support team. Trust that you will heal. Know that you can come back stronger. Nothing has changed in the principles behind your training. Do the right things consistently and you will improve. Better still, next time you reach your best, you’ll have a fully functioning leg to boot!

Focus on what matters and be constructive

As you will know by now, injuries don’t look at your race season and considerately time themselves for optimal convenience. Referencing your current athleticism, body composition and state of mind with where you would have been without the injury is pointless. Based on what you’ve told me, you’ve ignored this issue before and lived through the consequences. Having the surgery is a necessary step on your athletic journey. Unnecessary steps on your athletic journey might be include looking at where you would have been in your training by now, or at reports on Twitter and Facebook of others putting in epic training sessions. I hope this short video proves my point.

Focus on what matters - Focus on how you can support your recovery. It’s not going to be an easy ride. In fact is probably going to feel slow, boring and frustrating. Your recovery is going to be a winding path. A real challenge. But you thrive on challenges. Do remember though, that even if you do exactly what your physio says, neither (s)he nor I can guarantee your recovery will improve in a linear fashion day to day. It’s just not how it works. What you can guarantee your attendance, your commitment, your effort. Use your time back in the gym to learn and practise all the things you know you should be able to do. Master the basic movement competencies. Train around your injury too. Earn the right to progress. Come back stronger in every way.

Your lack of activity is not going to be helping your mood, and its quite common for an endurance athlete to put on a little weight when injured. How we eat is largely habitual, and so when activity levels change dramatically it can take a little while (and can be difficult) to adjust how much and what we eat. Recovering from injury is an energetically costly process though and food is medicine. What you eat is going to become the new stronger you. Focusing on high quality,  nutrient dense meals will help your mood and fuel recovery. The extra weight will take care of itself in time when training volume increases again.

Other things that are useful

I quite serendipitously came across an article on injury by Robbie Ventura after you had tweeted me. It was a great article and I include the take homes here also. All of these are still applicable and valid!

A bullet point summary of Robbie Ventura of his reflections from a recent injury (ow.ly/Jpy2J)

Robbie Ventura's reflections on recovering from injury (ow.ly/Jpy2J)

Use your support network

I’m not going to cite any papers or provide references, this one is self evident - when it comes to recovery from injury, support networks are seriously important! This includes friends, family, health professionals and even your crutches - use them.

Later down the line

I’ve also recently written this article for someone else who was returning to training after injury. I think a lot of this will still be applicable to you also. Do check it out.

Injuries are opportunities

I’ll finish with this as I think its a powerful idea. Sadly the idea is not mine (check out Ben Rosenblatt for more on this). Every serious injury I’ve had though, no matter how bleak things might have seemed at the time have resulted in me coming back stronger. I’ve managed to return a better athlete every time, going on some wild adventures in the process. Injuries make you evaluate, focus and work on your weakness. Strangely, my injuries have even been the catalyst for me to change my profession and entire lifestyle.  You are still the right side of 30 and as an endurance athlete, your best days are still ahead of you. What you make of this injury, and where you go on your athletic journey from here, really is up to you.

If you liked this article please share it with anyone you think might benefit. If you have any questions you want answering, please feel free to email me (andy@acbcoaching.com) or contact me on twitter @acbcoaching.