Triathletes Guide for Coming Back From Injury

What to expect and how to best prepare yourself for a healthy recovery experience.

triathlon marathon injury recovery ironman training

As committed athletes, we spend hours upon hours developing our fitness and performance in our respective sports. In the unfortunate, however likely event that we succumb to some sort of unexpected injury, it can feel like a tragic loss. This makes sense; the blood, sweat and tears has made this athleticism a part of us, it’s part of our identity and in many cases, part of our self worth. However, there are things that we can do to reset our negative thinking and heal with a positive outlook.

As someone who recently succumbed to a major injury, I felt it important to share my thoughts and approach to recovery so that others can use it to visualize their own roadmap to recovery. 

I had been gearing up for the upcoming 2022 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. All of my training was dialed in for a shot at winning my age group (M60-64), and I was on pace to do so. I was out on a routine bike ride when I suffered a crash that left me with a femur broken in two places. The femur is the largest/strongest bone in the body. To break it once is a task in itself, let alone in two places. Recovery from this injury is far more involved than other potential injuries. 

In a split second I went from striving for a podium at Worlds, to hoping I will be able to compete again at any level. This is quite the mental shift. 

Wrapping our heads around injury 

The first step in dealing with an injury setback is accepting the situation for what it is and shifting the mindset. If we are only focused on what we’ve lost, we will maintain a negative perspective. If we can reframe our thoughts into a new set of goals, we can get the brain to emit positive signals and achieve contentment.

1. Resetting our goals 

As sports minded people, it tends to be a sporting goal that gives us the most satisfaction. So for me, as long as I have a sports orientated goal to work towards, I can be happy. Therefore, even if I lose one goal, I can still be ‘happy’ by setting a new target and working towards it. 

Today, my goal has changed from winning an Ironman to getting myself back and finishing an Ironman. 

2. Altering our priorities and perspective 

 Progress is rarely linear. There are constant ups and downs that we experience throughout our training. It’s because of this lack of control, that we should focus on the journey more so than the destination. Focusing on what we can achieve each day allows us to maintain a continued sense of satisfaction. It also diminishes the psychological weight on any one singular event. 

3. Adjust priorities and build out your plan 

Once we have our mind in the right place and our goals realigned, it’s time to build out our new “training plan”. Just as if we were tackling a race, we can build a plan to tackle the oncoming recovery phase as well as the eventual assimilation back into sport. 

Assessing your priorities will help lay the foundation for recovery. Break down the steps that you will need to take from macro level to micro level. 

Here is a breakdown of my plan: 

  • I know that I will need surgery to repair my broken bone. My immediate priority is studying the upcoming operation and understanding my options and potential complications. The next step is working out the best rehab plan. 
  • I will maintain my aerobic fitness while bedridden with arm exercises. It does not matter what we do so long as we get and keep our heart rate up. 
  • Once I am able to bear weight and the wound has healed, I will start my swim training. Benefits include:
    • Rebuilding muscle mass in a low impact environment
    • Improving form and technique at low intensity
    • Rebuilding aerobic system 
    • Burning calories and maximizing nutrition 
      • Extra nutrition absorption will help fuse bones and strengthen muscles
    • Bonus: An extra benefit that kicks in around this stage are the endorphins that the swim produces. These should never be underestimated as they can help you stay ‘positive’ and give you a feeling of general well-being
  • From there I will progress to light aqua-jogging in the pool, running in the shallow end and eventually, gentle jogging outdoors

Having a rough plan like this not only keeps me mentally active, but provides a level of importance to each step of the recovery process. As things progress, these milestones will change and grow. 

Coming back to sport 

Eventually the day will come when we get cleared to do more physical activity. Each new allowance will feel like a shackle being unlocked, giving us a bit more freedom each time. Unfortunately, I have seen this new freedom result in athletes coming back way too fast and succumbing to strains and overuse injuries. We need to view the return to sport with the same patience and milestone lens we did for recovery. 

Although we are healed, we are NOT the athlete we were before the injury (not yet at least). Our muscles have atrophied, leaving them weaker and susceptible to pulls, and our soft tissue is not as flexible, due to lack of activity and mobility. Lastly, our aerobic capacity has reduced substantially. 

However, this doesn’t mean we cannot come back, in fact, we can use this as an opportunity to refine, rebuild and potentially come back better. 

1. Focus on strength and form

Physical therapy by nature is all about building back strength in weakened areas of the body. This theory should not just apply to your injury. Think of this phase of training as full body physical therapy. Strength training will build back the muscle mass lost due to inactivity. This should be a cornerstone of your training protocol, especially in the early stages. 

Since you will need to go slow to start, it provides an opportunity to drill down into form. Lower intensity drills and focus will teach your body the mechanics to move more efficiently. As you progress in recovery and increase intensity, these new neural connections will get stronger. 

2. Increase gradually 

It’s only natural to want to go faster and farther as quickly as possible. The key will be to manage this temptation over time. The general rule is not to increase distance or duration more than 10 percent a week. In the early portion of recovery, this can be even lower at five to seven percent. 

But we are all unique. Younger athletes’ bodies will generally repair faster than older bodies. And more experienced runners will have better muscle memory than newbie runners. 

Lastly, always proceed with caution, don’t compare yourself with others and always follow professional advice, my comments may not be applicable to you!

If you are reading this because you were recently injured… good luck.

. . .

Mike Trees is a running/triathlon coach (NRG Coaching) and all around elite endurance athlete. As a runner, Mike competed at Britain’s top sports University, Loughborough. He went on to race and coach all over the world, most recently in Japan. After 15 years racing as a professional triathlete, Mike eventually took up coaching triathlon and has coached Olympians and world champions, as well as National level and top amateurs.