Nothing stops a triathlete in his or her tracks quite like an injury. Here is a guide to some of the more common ailments, and how you can avoid them and treat them if they do arise.
Remember: if you’re in doubt about an injury, it’s important to reduce your training and seek advice from a qualified professional, such as a sports physician, physiotherapist or osteopath. Never train on in the hope that it will simply go away.
You should get any significant trauma to your legs that causes you severe pain or makes walking difficult checked out – in an A and E department, if necessary. If you have any joint swelling – for example, a swollen knee after a fall – don’t ignore it. It may be a sign of significant damage to structures within the knee, like the cartilage.
Prevention is better than cure
The best way to treat injuries is to avoid getting them in the first place. A few simple, preventative measures will keep you and your body in great shape to accept the training load and reduce the danger of damaging yourself.
A warm-up should be part of everyone’s exercise routine. The aim is to elevate your body’s temperature and increase the blood flow to the muscles and soft tissues, preparing you for exercise. Warming up increases heart rate, oxygen delivery, the speed of nerve impulses and the elasticity of tissues. Studies have shown that a structured warm-up programme can not only increase your performance, but reduce the risk of injury, too.
The most efficient warm-up should involve light cardiovascular work – say 5-10mins of gentle jogging, to give you a feeling of mild sweating without fatigue – followed by stretching. Stretches should involve all of your body’s major muscle groups: quads (front of your thighs); hamstrings (back of your thighs); calf and soleus muscles (back and inner part of your shins); adductors (where your legs meet your groin); glutes (your bottom); upper body (chest and back); and your trunk (abdomen). After all, you don’t run with your legs alone!
Never stretch when you’re cold, and stretch slowly and gently to the point of tension but never pain. To enjoy the full benefits of stretching, hold each position for at least 30secs. If you run with a partner, you could learn some paired stretches.
So you’re all warmed up and raring to go. But have you thought about what you aim to gain from your run? Planning ahead may seem boring, but it will help your fitness progress faster and, if you know what each session will involve, you’ll be less likely to suffer an injury due to a training error. While your training needs will vary depending on your goal, there are pitfalls that are common to everyone’s training, whether it’s for an Ironman or simply for pleasure.
One of the most common mistakes that runners and triathletes make is to underestimate the importance of rest. Without adequate rest periods your body simply can’t adapt to the training loads you place upon it, and injuries such as tendon problems and stress fractures can result.
In terms of how far you run, a rough rule of thumb is to not increase your total weekly mileage by more than 10% per week. If you’re new to triathlon, you should aim to increase the amount of ‘time on your feet’ first, and then consider building in speedwork and hill work later.
Never train intensely for more than two successive days, and remember to include easy runs within the week. Consider the surfaces you run on, and try to get a mixture of soft and hard ground (for example, trail runs and road runs).
It’s vital to get the right kind of shoes for your feet. Your shoe type will depend on whether you’re an overpronator, supinator or a neutral runner (see Jargon Buster to your left). Go to a specialised shop for runners and, if you’re unsure which sort of runner you are, ask a sports podiatrist or sports physio. Bin your trainers after 500 miles, however clean they look, as they won’t give you enough biomechanical support after that kind of mileage.
Running in hot weather places a lot of demands on your body and it’s important to consider the climate you’ll be training in. If you’re training in very warm weather, it makes sense to train earlier and/or later in the day, to avoid the heat of the midday sun.
You should always maintain a good level of hydration with plenty of isotonic drinks, which will reduce your chances of cramps.
Pay particular attention to warming up if you’re training in chilly conditions, as cold, inflexible muscles are at risk of strains and tears. Consider wearing layers of clothing that you can peel off as you warm up and never stretch when cold.
Footcare: best practice
Just as you need to maintain your bike, it’s important to look after your feet. Everyday you should take a good look at them to check for any blisters, cuts, verrucas, signs of athlete’s foot or in-growing toenails. Wash and dry them daily, especially after doing exercise. Ensure your toenails are kept trimmed – cut the nails off straight across, rather than on a curve, which may encourage in-growing of the nail. Socks with a high cotton content may help guard against athlete’s foot, while wicking socks are useful if blisters are a problem for you. Well-fitting, roomy shoes are important, and you should have more than one pair, alternating them to ensure they have time to dry out in between runs.
Regularly stretching your calf muscles helps maintain good foot flexibility and function and should be part of your everyday routine. Don’t ignore persistent problems – seek the advice of a chiropodist or podiatrist.