Injury Series Part 3 - Survival Guide for Handling The Long Shutdown

February 15, 2022

By Jennie Hansen, DPT

In the first couple of blogs in this series, I focused on ways to (hopefully) still maintain some fitness and work through (and beyond) smaller, day-to-day aches and pains. But, sometimes, despite our best efforts, acute injuries happen (hi, bike crashes), or, for one (usually competitive training motive-related) reason or another, the overuse ones become serious enough to warrant a more extended shutdown. We all fear this happening for a reason-it, in a word, sucks. With the exception of the serious, truly awful bike accidents that result in permanent damage (which are beyond the scope of what’s discussed in this post), maybe, in the great scheme of medical problems, an orthopedic injury that will heal in a few months might not be at the top of the list of bad things that can happen to a body. But still-acutely broken bones, stress fractures, soft tissue tears, post-op recoveries-none of it is fun. We chose to pursue triathlon because, at some level, it brings some combination of enjoyment, satisfaction, connection, community, and a sense of accomplishment to their lives, and injury results in the temporary loss of that. So, what do we do when faced with a longer shutdown that keeps us more significantly out of training and competing?

(Here’s my disclaimer: this comes from my perspective and experiences as a coach, athlete who’s been a frequent flier on the injury roller coaster, and physical therapist. I am NOT a mental health professional, and very much support and encourage the importance of such professionals when indicated!)

Feel What You Feel.

“It could have been/be glad that it wasn’t worse!” This is perhaps the most ubiquitous comment in response to any sort of injury (bike crash in particular) social media post. Although these comments are well-meaning, anyone who’s ever emerged from an accident with everything major intact realizes this. It also could have better; you could have made it home without hitting that pothole and sacrificing that clavicle (and your season). The thing is, though, problems aren’t competitions, and someone else’s struggles don’t invalidate your own disappointments and feelings. No one wants to be laid up. It’s isolating; it takes away our endorphins and release and daily sense of accomplishment; it interferes with plans, and at a basic level, pain is a negative emotion. Suppressing emotions or trying to force them into non-existence doesn’t work, and it doesn’t help. The feelings are there, and need to be felt and acknowledged in order to be dealt with properly. If you don’t feel at least a little bit upset about not being able to do something triathlon-related, then why invest the time, effort, and money into triathlon in the first place? So, when injury strikes, don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Confide in your support system, find something you can do (the next item here), but don’t feel like you shouldn’t be upset just because in the great scheme of human suffering, maybe a stress fracture isn’t the end of the world. Recognizing that, expressing gratitude towards all that you have, yet still being bummed about an injury are not mutually exclusive things. Your feelings are valid, so let them exist without guilt or judgement.

Focus on What You Can Do.

I know, I know. Oldest advice in the book. The benefit of triathlon is that its three disciplines tend to lend the sport nicely to this. Heck, I committed to my first triathlon while swimming and biking my way through a running-related injury. Naturally, when triathletes hear this advice, the first thoughts go to other triathlon-related activities. Shoulder injury? Ride the trainer. Shin stress fracture? Swim more. Strength train, rehab, work on body weaknesses, etc. But, the old “focus on what you can do” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to exercise-related items. Maybe what you can do is spend more time with family and friends, get ahead at work, tackle something around the house, check off some continuing education, cook something fancy, read, work on a craft, just sleep more...and so on, and so forth. The point is, finding something else that feels productive, satisfying, or just plain enjoyable in place of triathlon-related pursuits while injured is a better focus than getting trapped just thinking about what you can’t do. Plus, taking care of that neglected house or yard work, or knocking off work projects is pretty useful for taking some stress off when the time comes to resume training.

But don’t feel like you HAVE to (or even should) be perfect (or always happy) about it.

Here’s the flip side of focusing on what you can do - there's no law that dictates that just because you can, say, swim and do rehab exercises, you have to replace every normal training second with them. While posting about big swim weeks in lieu of being able to run might garner social media likes, or sharing a picture of a booted foot on a bike might seem “tough”, there’s just no need to feel like you’re behind or lazy if you’re not doing absolutely every physical activity you can while injured. In many cases, other types of exercise still may load the affected tissue too much, or replacing the injury-causing stress on the body with a different type of stress just takes away resources that could be used for healing. It also may lead to other issues (such as the time my husband developed an obsession with trying to set rowing machine half marathon PRs while in a boot, and hurt his back in the process). As a PT, I can attest that rehab exercises are dosed out with a purpose, so more isn’t better there, either. Triathletes *might* tend to be a tad obsessive, so it’s important to not let that turn into unhealthy compulsions when injured. If you want to move or focus on other athletic activities, by all means, when it doesn’t interfere with healing, go for it! But, don‘t feel like it’s a necessity to be a “real” athlete.

This goes for that non-triathlon related stuff, as well. There’s something to be said for tackling a house project or engaging in a hobby that normally gets put on the back burner during triathlon training. But, you’re allowed to be a little cranky about not being able to swim, bike, and/or run while doing so. A couple of years ago, I spent the winter cleaning out our dumping ground study, tearing down wallpaper, and repainting while recovering from an injury. While I do appreciate the study now houses a treadmill and elliptical between walls that have advanced past 1978, I still spent most of my time wishing I was biking, instead of scraping glue off of walls. Because again, we all chose to participate in triathlon. Some athletes find they prefer other pursuits to triathlon when injured, which is perfectly fine! For those that do intend to return to the sport, though, go right ahead and admit that you’d rather be riding your bike than cleaning grout. It’s fine.

Look for Contributing Factors, But Don’t Lay on the Blame.

Hindsight is always 20/20, right? Once injury strikes, looking back in time and assigning self-blame becomes easy - I’m an idiot, I never should have tried to run when my foot was sore, I shouldn’t have taken that corner so quickly on the bike, why didn’t I do my strength work every day, this is all my fault. Beating yourself up, though, has changed the past approximately zero times in the history of ever, and it doesn’t change or improve the present state. So, don’t berate yourself-or others (mainly coaches). Of course, unfortunately, the bad apples who force athletes to continue to train or race when injured do exist; this discussion doesn’t apply to those situations. In the more common cases, though, where everyone was well-intentioned and operating to the best of their (sound, informed) knowledge, the urge to place blame on others might be natural human nature to some degree, but needs to be looked at fairly. I’m as guilty as anyone at withholding details or downplaying how much something hurts in training logs, especially if I’m at a particularly key point in training. This is typically followed by some degree of lashing out about why I wasn’t stopped the times niggles have morphed into full-fledged injuries. Of course, this is totally unfair- in a remote environment, the nuances of day-to-day pain are hard to fully appreciate, and real-time decisions ultimately need to be made by the athlete. So again, while blaming someone else is a common, knee-jerk human reaction, be objective and fair, especially in the heat of frustration.

Still, this doesn’t mean that anyone should turn a blind eye to the circumstances that led to an injury. The key is to frame this as a valuable learning experience (for both the athlete and coach) in order to accept the current injured state and stay healthy in the future, vs using it to berate those involved in the present. In the past several years, I’ve learned a lot about what my body can (and cannot) handle in terms of training load, as well as about my strength and mobility needs. Beating myself up about not recognizing some of this pre-injury doesn’t change anything, though. Maybe the distinction is slight, but looking objectively into the past and identifying factors and behaviors that contributed to the development of an injury in order to change them moving forward is a productive way to move on, while dwelling and blame are not.

Learn (and Commiserate), but Don’t Compare.

Being diagnosed with an injury often leads down internet rabbit holes. While learning about a condition and seeking the support of others who understand what it’s like to go through it can certainly be helpful, be careful to take it all with a grain of salt. Injury diagnoses are simply a description of what’s going on with a specific tissue. Maybe a certain tendon is degraded, a specific part of a bone has a small fracture in it, etc. And while a diagnosis may help guide prognosis and treatment progressions, every single athlete has varied individual characteristics that will impact the efficacy of interventions and timelines. Inevitably, with enough internet digging, you’ll hear fear-inducing horror stories, or success stories that may, on the surface, give hope, but can also lead to negative feelings and unnecessary worry if your specific journey takes a little longer. For example, I had a femoral stress fracture that took over a year to fully heal. I had mitigating factors, though, and certainly others have healed from the same injury in a fraction of the time. On the other hand, at one point in college I went through a bout of plantar fasciitis that I essentially ignored and ran through until it went away. That also wasn’t necessarily “normal”, and does not mean that someone who’s taken a few weeks off of running and still has heel pain should throw in the towel forever. So, go ahead and exchange some Instagram messages with someone who feels your pain. But, don’t throw yourself into a state of despair because your college roommate’s brother’s wife ended up needing 17 screws in her foot and a new bike when she had a stress fracture. Listen to the medical professionals working with your specific case and body, and give yourself the grace to heal on your own personal timeline.

Come Out Stronger.

Again, this is one of those kind of hokey, generic pieces of advice, but it’s true. Down the line, remembering how much you missed training becomes fodder for providing motivation and gratitude while training. Early on, nothing feels better than those first few pain-free training sessions, and nothing makes you appreciate training quite like not being able to train. Remembering how much you missed the burn of a good workout adds a level of motivation in those dig deep moments. When push comes to shove during races, on countless occasions I’ve thought back to some past permutation of my injured self, and reminded myself that past injured Jennie would have given anything to be out on a race course, covered in stickiness and various bodily fluids, forcing down gel #948 while dumping water over chafing and willing herself to not just curl up in on the side of the road. And during those I just don’t feel like it today melodramatic moments during the “grind” phase of training builds (we’ve all been there), just thinking about how much the alternative kinda sucks can help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply looked over at mountain of laundry next to the washer/drier during long trainer rides, thought about how many times I’ve bitterly tackled it while injured, and used those memories as motivation to keep moving my legs. Because stopping would mean I had no excuse not to do laundry. However you use it, injury periods are great for increasing motivation, gratitude, and the ability to dig deep on the other side.

So, that’s my “survival guide” for the worst part of triathlon-injury downtime. Ideally, you’ll never need any of this advice, but, well, there’s a saying about the best laid plans. Next up, I’ll wrap up this series with the flip, uplifting side of it all-the comeback!

About the author ...

Jennie Hansen is a Coach with QT2 Systems Coach as well as a Physical Therapist and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist.  Jennie is also a Professional Triathlete, racing for QT2 Systems.