The Training Journey to a Race Destination - Injury Prevention
Descente London Duathlon finisher Katherine O'Hara gives her top tips for preventing and overcoming injuries. Read on to find out more!
I look back now and upon reflection I can see that in my 5 years whilst competing in triathlon, I was a stereotypical Type A triathlete – didn’t enjoy the swimming. I now only swim as a fun activity with my children and when on holiday to cool off! Consequently, I have become a more balanced Duathlete. And what have I learned in the past 2 decades of competing? That I will always be learning! So this is simply my view on the things I’ve learnt about how to be more proactive against injury whilst training.
Sometimes things happen in races that we have no control over. For example, no one could predict the first Hawaiian Earthquake in Hawaii since 1873 in the iron-man race week! These things we cannot stress over, we have no control over them and we cannot guarantee ‘perfect’ race day conditions.
However, there are some things that we can control and the likelihood of injury is one of them. As I see it, there are 2 types of injury. There’s the training related injuries which are usually those insidious nagging feelings that we ignore until they get so bad they one day stops us in our tracks. Some examples of things I have experienced include stress fractures in my shins and feet and more recently a ruptured plantar fascia which happened mid cross country season!
The second type of injury are those things that happen outside of our control. I have been thrown off my bike a few times and broken a toe slipping on surface water on the edge of a swimming pool. In fact a friend of mine whilst in training for the Descente London Duathlon broke her toe as she stubbed it on a bed chasing her children! These injuries usually occur when we are doing something other than running or riding. Recently I heard that a triathlete ended up in A&E after a game of ping pong. I rest my case! For now let’s focus on the ones we can control and how do we avoid these?
Overtraining and resulting injuries are something generally inside our control. The thought processes of hurt anger and disappointment from injury are comparable to grief. An athlete mourns the potential loss of fitness, time or racing opportunities. We lose control and end up living foreign sedentary lifestyle that requires huge adaptation for our usual hyperactive selves. It is true that most athletes do not have a problem with motivation, but they always struggle when it comes to resting! A couple of days rest can feel like an eternity.
TOP 10 TIPS FOR INJURED ATHLETES/TO AVOID INJURY
Use the time to get mentally stronger
The mental strength to believe that everything happens for a reason is not for the faint hearted and at the time seems unconvincing. The time frame of an injury is definitely a period of reflection and evaluation of balance in an athlete’s life. It may highlight the importance of spirituality- whether it is as part of rehabilitative yoga or mediation practice - or through individual religious beliefs (my mum’s prayers definitely seem to work!). It may also be chance to be creative or spend more time with loved ones.
If you can take control of a the mental focus, you can shift your thoughts from sacrifice and sadness to determination and rehabilitation. A big part of this is redefining your goals for the forthcoming season or event. Numerous studies have illustrated the benefit of forced mental and physical rest through much needed recovery and new found inner strength.
For those who are not injured we should still be working on our mental strength through visualisation and reference points of tough training to prepare for race day. A sports psychologist can be useful even if not injured.
Create the habit of strength work
Summer is usually the time to build on longer aerobic and tempo sessions then to focus on speed work as we get closer to an event such as the London Duathlon. If alongside our cardio sessions we make time to engage in strength training and work on areas of weakness, we can address postural instability and build specific core strength which can be extremely beneficial in the protection against injury. Drills such as one legged bike pedalling on a turbo trainer or plank can also improve leg strength and prevent back pain.
Get a proper diagnosis
In my opinion, a large amount of the frustration experienced around injury stems from the internal debate about whether you are doing all that you can to aid a speedy recovery. Choosing the right professional advice is essential as it will help to get a proper diagnosis and ensure you are on a realistic path to recovery.
Despite being a qualified pharmacist and personal trainer my experience as an athlete competing the past 2 decades is what I draw on the most. A trusted physio for me has been the best way to get a diagnosis as they can understand the urgency felt to want to get back into training and can help you build in the right way; first in duathlon, then frequency and then intensity.
Do the Exercises
I can speak from experience in rushing rehabilitation. After one stress fracture, I rushed and ended up missing two Ironman races as a result. In November 2016 I ruptured my plantar fascia and had a ski boot for months. For the first time I actually did my physio exercises. Not only did they give me much needed structure to my week with focused sessions, I actually felt like I was making progress whilst not being able to run or ride. By being patient the end result (despite not running for months) was that I went on to win my age group at the European Duathlon Champs last April. I have also achieved PB times when coming back from injury! The rest makes you so hungry for results as well as being truly rested.
More often than not we squeeze our training sessions around life and stretching for 5-10 minutes is rarely made time for. If you take this time off from a run or ride or better still add in a solid yoga session each week you will really help to prevent injury.
This is the ultimate weapon against injury and is the secret to increasing mileage and intensity- I try and get this once a fortnight if I can. The difference between a good pain easing out a tight muscle and the pain of an injury is something you learn over the years.
This is key not just for training but for recovery also. I have a protein shake within 20 minutes of a long or hard session to help my muscles repair and recover. Iron is important for the transportation of oxygen in your red blood cells and Vitamin C can speed healing. Diet is the best way to supplement but if you are know you are not eating the fresh fruit and vegetables you need you may need to include supplements to support your immune system whilst training intensely.
Especially in the warmer weather we have had recently , it is essential to know your body’s fluid and electrolyte requirements. The best indicator of hydration is the colour of your urine. The colour you want to aim for is a ‘light straw’ colour, so take some time to experiment how much fluid you need in training and outside to match that. If you know you sweat a lot or if the weather is warm make sure you drink more and if you know you are a salty sweater consider taking on some salt tabs.
Day to day self-analysis.
The truth is that although the health professionals are all qualified to help- no one really knows your body as well as you do. Injured athletes tend to look for the detective with the hidden clues, which is YOU. If in in doubt about whether to train or rest listen to your body’s signs and symptoms to make the right decision.
Fatigue from a training session is inevitable especially if you are more of a beginner and are not used to training every day. Alternate intense sessions with a day in between which is less intense to aid recovery. Be flexible and keep a diary of niggles when they first appear and the volume of training that you are doing.
As an athlete we will often underestimate our abilities and feel like we have not done enough. Looking back over a diary of sessions and noting when a pain first appeared can help explain how to avoid it again. Monitoring RHR- resting heart rate can also be a useful tool to know when our bodies are more strained than normal. Within this be mindful if you are dealing with a stressful time in your life emotionally or there is a major life event such as moving house or a new job you need to factor this in. Your emotional state will have a huge impact on heart rate and energy levels so be kind to yourself.
The best medication for an injury is as individual to an athlete as any other aspect of treatment. If you choose to take pain killers, take them mindfully and don’t be fooled into thinking the injury is then well enough to train on, you could be doing more damage. You also don’t know how your body will react to medication when training and racing so check with your GP if you’re taking anything new. Natural remedies such as Arnica or tiger balm topically can be effective.
I read a recent article that said that 80-90% the runs that Mo Farah does are on alternative surfaces such as grass. Pavement pounding definitely increases the chance of injury. Choose to cross train if your legs feel too tight to run or head to the gym if the outside temperature is soaring. These choices can maintain the consistency of training which is the most important thing to build fitness.
Take a moment this summer to watch the sun come up on your early run rather than focusing on your Garmin. Building fun and companionship into training can make a real difference. Making the right choices to keep balance where you can. Stay positive and be SMART with your training plan. Enjoy your training, listen to your body and see you on the start line in London!