7/20/15

The injured athlete - take it from me

Year after year, season after season, I was defined, destroyed and strengthened by injuries. 

I remember the very first injury I had as a triathlete. It was 2007. 
 Karel was racing a cycling road race in GA and I decided to do a training run on the rolling hills while he was racing. Somewhere during the run, my entire hip/back tightened up and it was extremely uncomfortable. A few days later after returning home from GA, I felt a stabbing pain somewhere in my hip area during a run and that was it. 
And to make matters worse, I was just about 4 weeks away from my very first Ironman World Championship and my 2nd Ironman. 

I was devastated. 
I felt embarrassed, anxious, stressed and uncomfortable and simply put, my life just sucked for 4 weeks. 

Every morning I would wake up wondering if I could walk pain free. I went to bed hoping that tomorrow I would be in less pain. I wished for the day that I could take a hop without pain, let alone jog. 
I was no fun to be around and my boyfriend Karel was still racing bikes and I was envious of his freedom to use is body however he wanted.
I didn't want to be around anyone who was an athlete and I cried a lot. 

I did everything wrong for 4 weeks. 
I stopped almost all training to "rest" my hips. I got a MRI, X-ray (diagnostic tests showed nothing), saw massage therapists, constantly stretched and rolled, got a few cortisone injections, did ART, goggled, searched Slowtwitch for answers. 
I was desperate and I didn't know any better but to try to quickly fix myself as soon as possible. 

For several years after I finished the 2007 IM World Championship (yep - I still raced as a stubborn athlete and hobbled my way across the finish line with an excruciatingly painful marathon where I refused to walk), I told myself that I didn't regret my decision to race Kona. I earned my finisher medal, I was proud of my determination and I became an IM World Championship finisher. 

But fast forward to 7 more Ironman finishes, a PR of 10:17 in the Ironman and 3 more opportunities to race Kona, I wish I would have approached the race differently for my decision to race Kona as an injured athlete severely affected my health and body for 6 more years. 

If only I could have given myself better advice. 

I should have walked the marathon. Maybe I should have turned in my chip after the bike. Perhaps I just shouldn't have put myself in a tough situation to be in the race environment in the first place. 

After 6 consecutive years of dealing with hip/back/glute issues (from 2007-2013), often times not running for up to 3 months year after year, I've learned a lot about myself. When you are a chronically injured athlete (despite doing everything that you are told to do to keep yourself healthy and to overcome the injury), you hit some very low moments but also you can begin to have a better outlook on training and racing. 

Never is a workout taken for granted. 
You can give better advice to others than you were once able to give to yourself. 
It's much easier to modify workouts for a "fear" of getting injured again.

Looking back, I have had many scenarios where I have had to make tough decisions. As an athlete, some of my hardest decisions to make where not which races to register for in a season but instead, how to approach the season when an injury arises. 

Every athlete handles an injury differently and sadly, injuries are bound to happen. The human body is not as resilient as we think/want it should be. 
Some see an injury as an opportunity to focus on weaknesses. Others are frustrated with the situation but deal with the circumstances. And some refuse to change their lifestyle or goals and push through pain and discomfort. It's clear that there is nothing to gain when training or racing through an injury but it can be incredibly difficult for some athletes to think clear enough about the current situation and what's the best approach. 

Regardless of the physical pain, it's really the mental and emotional pain that is the most difficult part of being injured. Not only do you experience a loss of your sport but there is a dramatic change in your lifestyle. Workouts are removed, there is more time spent at doctor appointments and physical therapy treatments and there can be many days when it feels like the day is just a waste without a workout, just like old times. 



When you are the athlete who is injured, it is hard to think long term. It's hard to make good decisions that will benefit the future rather than what feels "right" at the moment.  Every effort is focused on quick healing and patience is an extremely hard trait if a race is on the horizon. For coaches, loved ones and friend's of an injured athlete, it is really difficult to say the right thing. As an athlete, you see that time is running out before a key race but the injury is just taking longer than anticipated to heal and that can be extremely frustrating.

Not racing or not completing the entire race is certainly one of the toughest decisions for an athlete to make. 

Out of frustration that months turned into weeks which turned into days, there is a tremendous sadness and a loss of identity as an athlete, and this anxiety and stress often causes athletes to make decisions that they eventually regret during the healing process. 

I often say that dealing with an injury comes with a roller coaster of emotions. Acceptance, denial, frustration content. Certainly a hard working athlete should be hard working in the rehab process but it's not easy to be all smiles and rainbows when you can no longer do what you love to do. 

As I head up to IM Lake Placid this week to spectate Karel and our athletes on Sunday, I am reminded of my last injury. 

Five months prior to 2013 IM Lake Placid, I suffered my last injury. For 3 months I did not run and I returned to run training in late May of 2013 with only about 8 weeks to prepare for the IM. 

Amazingly, I had a great race. Although it was not easy during my 3 month hiatus from running (and limited cycling and swimming), I refused to let my injury define me or destroy me. 
I had enough of being injured!

I told myself that this was going to be my last injury - enough already! 
 I was committed to the recovery from my injury to ensure that I didn't cause any more setbacks.  I was determined to get myself back to a healthy place and I would not rush the process even if it meant going into the race severely undertrained. 
Gloria was a big help and I wanted nothing more than to be able to race with my mind focused on pushing hard and not have my mind focused on tolerating pain or how I was going to overcome another setback. I was focused on taking care of my health and even though time did run out as I was progressing with my long run fitness before Placid, I did not let it affect my mental game on race day. 

2 years ago I crossed the finish line with a huge IM PR of 10:43. I ran a PR run of 3:48 after a 5:46 bike and a 1:01:02 swim. 
I was 5th AG which earned me a roll down slot to Kona (11 weeks later) and I finished 12 amateur female and 21st overall female. 

So what's my advice to you if you are an injured athlete with a race on the horizon? 



Don't let this injury define you. No one is taking away your athlete status. You do not have to prove that you are tough as nails by pushing through pain. Do what you need to do to get yourself healthy again. That is all that matters. Every day that you let your ego get the best of you, is a day that you could have made progress with healing. Be patient. You may not feel it now, but you will heal. And if you are proactive during your recovery/rehab, you will not only heal but you will be stronger than before. If you got injured because you made a poor decision in training/racing, admit it, own up to it and move on vowing that you won't make the same mistake twice. If you can't figure out why you got injured, explore the situation so that you can take the steps when you are healed (which you will be) to reduce the risk of a future injury.

Don't let this injury destroy you. There's no need to throw in the towel. We can all think about the many age group, elite and professional athletes who have had incredible comeback stories after overcoming an injury. There are athletes who have been injured and then beat the odds and other athletes who struggled for a long time and provided an extreme dose of motivation with their initial comeback to the sport.
When you get injured, you have to be 2x as motivated to put in the work to heal yourself than when you were an injury-free athlete. Come back too soon and you may experience more time lost. Keep yourself as fit as possible by focusing on what you can do, pain free, so that you do not cause any more setbacks. When you are ready to make your return back to full training again, you will be so happy that you did not give up when the going got tough. You will not be injured forever - don't forget this. 

Do let the injury strengthen you.
I believe that we can learn a lot from injuries. We learn a new side of being mentally strong. We become better in areas that we were neglecting to focus on before and we don't take for granted what we once thought was simple and easy.
Be your own comeback story. 
How will your story end? After a few days, weeks, months or even a year or more of an injury- what do you see as your happy ending?
What's motivating you to get better? What's keeping you focused and determined to not give up?
Who's helping you make smart decisions so you don't back track? And what will this injury teach you about yourself?
Are you going to be weak, lazy, unmotivated, angry or bitter or are you going to be determined, focused, hard working and diligent that there WILL be a positive outcome when you DO return to the sport that you love. 

From a former injured athlete...take it from me. 
You will be healthy and injury free again. 
Just do the right thing, make the right decisions and be smart.
It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.