Let’s face it, injuries are an occupational hazard for triathletes. There can’t be any triathlete who has never suffered from an injury of some sort, and of course the severity of the injury will determine the time needed to recover. Injury prevention is the “holy grail” of any training programme, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many injuries occur because athletes try to do too much too quickly, or consistently train at too high an intensity with only limited recovery time. Whilst developing core stability and maintaining good flexibility can help to reduce injury risk, it is almost inevitable that at some point in any athlete's career, an injury will occur.
By their very nature, most triathletes are competitive and just a little bit impatient. If injury strikes, the desire to recover as quickly as possible and to get back into training can be overwhelming, especially if training for a major race or competition. However trying to get back too soon, or resuming training at too high an intensity or volume, can all too easily lead to a recurrence of the injury, or even trigger a different one.
Once an injury occurs, the first thing to consider is how best to manage the recovery period. We lose fitness both “centrally” (the cardio-vascular system that includes the heart and lungs), and “peripherally” (the muscles including capillaries, tendons and ligaments). If injury strikes a specific limb, the injured area will soon see peripheral loss of fitness, usually associated with a decrease in muscle mass and strength.
Since this is likely to put a halt on running, it will soon be accompanied by a decrease in central cardio-vascular fitness – in fact some studies have shown evidence of this after just three days of inactivity. Whilst peripheral fitness is hard to sustain during an injury, alternative exercises that use different limbs or muscles to the injured area, such as swimming or cycling, can help to maintain central cardio-vascular fitness, since they stimulate oxygen uptake, blood flow and heart rate.
Having a sensible approach and re-think of nutrition is crucial whilst injured. Every mile run burns around 100-120 calories, so an injury will inevitably mean a lower daily energy expenditure. Unless energy intake is reduced to compensate for this, more calories will be eaten than are expended, and body fat levels will soon increase. Too much extra body fat, and your recovery will be slower, performances will suffer, and the risk of further injury will increase.
Once the injury has healed, goals need to be re-set, and training must start again gradually. Strength will need to be re-built since muscles will have “atrophied”, and oxygen uptake capacity, which is critical for endurance activities, will have reduced.
Be prepared to reduce both the intensity and duration of sessions, and extend recovery periods if doing interval sessions, and take more time between training sessions by incorporating extra rest days. Don’t mistake muscle soreness for further injury – soreness is inevitable as muscles are stimulated and start re-building after an injury, and simply need extra time to recover. By listening to your body, and building up distance and intensity gradually, you should soon start to recover and regain previous fitness levels and performances.
This may take time, depending on the length of the layoff, but with patience and a gradual return to training, full recovery will soon happen.
Professor John Brewer, Head of Applied Sports Science at St Mary's University. He is one of the UK's leading sports scientists and marathon specialists, due to his extensive research background in marathon running and his experience as a marathon runner. He is an advisor to the London Marathon, as well as a 19-time runner of the event.
His book Run Smart: Using Science to Improve Performance and Expose Marathon Running’s Greatest Myths is out on 21 September (Bloomsbury, £12.99/ £10.99 eBook). You can pre order from Waterstones here