How to Come Back from Injury

We triathletes like to push the limits of what our bodies can do. Swim harder, bike faster, run stronger. This also gets us into trouble from time to time, and in our pursuit of our own versions of Citius, Altius, Fortius, we break ourselves. And there we are: injured and having to take time away from the sports and activities that we love in order to rehabilitate our bodies.

Making a comeback from a serious injury can be a challenging time for a triathlete. I say serious here because I’m not talking about the lesser aches and pains associated with hard training, although aches and pains can become more serious and need attention. I’m talking about injuries that cause a triathlete to stop training, reverting focus to healing for weeks, months, and possibly years. The following are five tips on how to make the most of your comeback, and make sure that the comeback sticks.

Be patient with your brain. In many cases, our brain (the control system for moving our bodies) is re-learning movements and realizing ranges of motion that it has forgotten. Our brain works in such a way that it has a map of our entire body to reference at a given time. But when a traumatic incident occurs, the brain, in an effort to protect the body, will erase or blur that map. The result is a loss of mobility, range of motion, and skill. This is why a big part of rehab is Physical Therapy. PT’s are the experts on how best to relearn these lost movements.  Patiently taking the time to rewrite the blurry maps of the body for the brain to read will pay off down the road when we are once again capable of testing the limits. A clear map means there will be no hesitation in movement, and quick reactions are not far from happening once again.

“…you’ve gotta get obsessed, and stay obsessed.” That’s one of my favorite quotes of all time. Written by John Irving in the novel The Hotel New Hampshire, it applies to everything in life, but especially in the case of an injury. You’re a triathlete who’s been broken. A weakness was discovered in your body, and now you’re knocked down. Take this time to learn everything about what and why it happened to you. Figure out how to rebuild yourself. Obsess about it. Obsess about how to turn your weakness into strength. Learn why your body failed. Did you over work a tendon because the muscles that should have done the job for you were weak? How did that happen? How can you prevent it? Maybe your bones can’t handle the training load, and your result is a stress fracture. What’s causing that to happen? How can you fix brittle bones?

Test and observe. Once you get to a point where you are given the “go ahead” by your doctors to re-engage in sport, start with simple tests, and keep notes about what happens. Here’s an example:

I began working with an athlete who had knee surgery in the previous year. She was cleared by her doc to begin training for triathlons, and we began putting together her plan to race an Ironman in October. Obviously, I was concerned about how her knee would hold up, so we started slow, and very gradually built up her training volume. In the beginning,  we discussed and made note of how specific activities would affect her knee in each workout. What would happen during a set of threshold intervals on the bike? How many days would it take to recover from a long run? We created a repeatable block of training that we knew her knee could handle. This was our standard, and learning how and when we could build upon this was the key. A little speed work here, some additional volume there, always taking notes and keeping track of the health of her knee. Eventually, 60 minutes of easy running became 90 minutes. Intensity was gradually added to duration. We added specific exercises to help strengthen weaknesses caused by the injury. This approach is not unlike a progressive training plan for any athlete. We assessed limitations, gently pushed the boundaries of those limitations, observed how her body reacted, and adjusted the training focus according to the reactions. We are now several months into her training plan, and thus far we have successfully managed to keep her knee healthy. We continue to monitor everything closely, as we’ve done so from day one, and we now have a greater understanding of what is possible and where the limits fall.

Seek advice from multiple sources. No one person has all the answers. As a coach, I frequently consult with other coaches, sports nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, sports psychologists, and frankly, anyone who might have valid experience in the realm of sport. Yes, there are a lot of stupid people out there saying stupid things. These are not the people you want to seek advice from regularly. Vet your sources, but be open minded. Injury rehab seems to be as much art as it is science, with even the most experienced experts on the subject often making educated guesses as to the exact rehab protocols. To fully rehabilitate an injury is actually a rare thing to see. In my experience, talking to five experts in the area of injury rehab will yield five different opinions on how to do it right, and they could all be correct. The bottom line here is to learn as much as possible from the experts, and formulate a process based on what will work best for your rehabilitation from injury.

Keep the fire inside burning. Injury is debilitating. It’s a dream crusher. But we can’t let an injury keep a good triathlete down. You have to keep dreaming. Keep that fire inside stoked so that when the day comes that your injury is a distant memory, you’ve done the work to be ready to push the limits once again.   

Lee Gardner is the Head Coach atTrismarter Triathlon Coaching and Nutrition. Coach Lee has successfully coached triathletes to a number of championship events, including ITU Age Groups Worlds, USAT Age Group Nationals, Ironman World Championship, and Ironman 70.3 World Championship. In 2012, Lee coached athletes to both Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championships age group victories, as well as the USA Triathlon 2012 Female Age Group Athlete of the Year.

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