Making hard decisions when dealing with an injury
Imagine if you could train and race without a single risk for injury?
If it seems to good to be true, well, that's because it is.
Injuries are part of sport. If you call yourself an athlete, accept that you are always at risk for an injury.
When you train for an athletic event, you are placing a tremendous amount of stress on the body to improve your skills, fitness and preparation. And for any athlete who wants to get more out of his/her body, there are risks to be taken to push a little harder and go a little longer. Certainly, every coach has his/her intentions to design a smart training plan/training environment to reduce the risk for injury but sometimes things are just out of your control. While many injuries (niggles) are managed conservatively with little break in structured training or activities of daily living, other injuries are very disruptive to life, often causing physical and mental stress due to a complete stop in physical activity.
For any athlete who has been injured, it's normal to be pissed off, frustrated, sad, mad, angry, disengaged and irritated. This may cause isolation and lack of motivation and may lead into more serious issues such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating and substance abuse.
Realizing that some injuries come randomly (without a known trigger or warning) and some injuries are accidents (crash, rolling an ankle, slipping on a wet floor), it's important to note that athletes are not injury proof. Whether an injury happens randomly or because you are always pushing your limits and ignoring pain, injuries happen in sport and each athlete will have his/her own mental and physical response.
Certainly, for any outsider (friend, family member, training partner, coach, teammate), it's easy to give advice like "hang in there" or "stay positive" or "don't give up". But athletes don't just deal with the physical pain of a torn muscle, strained tendon or broken bone but also the mental pain associated with the temporary or permanent loss of sport (which also brings purpose and self-identity)
As an athlete, although there is no good time to be injured, one of the most difficult times to be diagnosed with an injury is right before an important event. While athletes will often get injured due to a ramp in training volume/intensity, athletes can often be a bit too dedicated (stubborn) to training in the 4-6 weeks out from a race and will often feel the need do go a little harder or do a little more to validate race day readiness - thus the risk for injury increases.
I get it.
It's very tough to make that decision "to race or not to race."
With your athlete brain, you are often only capable of thinking in the current moment. It's nearly impossible to think beyond your next race.
For example, in 2015, Karel tore his plantar fascia in early June while training for Ironman Lake Placid. This was his first real injury and he didn't want to accept it. When he finally received the MRI results that it was a tear (as we were driving to Lake Placid a few days before the race), Karel still wanted to race. He thought he could just tough it up and race and then he could recover from the tear. His thinking was - well it's already torn, what worse could happen?
He was obviously thinking in the present moment and could not see beyond Lake Placid. He could not think about his health or anything beyond this injury. I don't blame him. This is normal and he was not doing anything wrong. He could not see that in 3 months, he would have the opportunity to participate in his first Ironman World Championship (with me) IF he didn't run in Lake Placid. It seems like logical thinking (don't race Lake Placid and heal up for IMKona) but as an athlete, it's extremely difficult to think logically, let along see beyond your next finish line.
As athletes, we often struggle to recognize and accept long-term consequences of our immediate actions.
There are many common reasons why athletes feel they need to complete a race, even though they are faced with an injury. For example.....
But I told everyone I was doing it and all my training buddies are doing the race.
I don't want to be left out.
But I trained so hard for this race.
But I spent so much money on this race and trip.
I don't want to gain weight.
But I invested so much time for this race and I don't want to let my family down.
I'll just take it easy on race day.
I want the finisher medal.
I just really want to do it.
I remember telling Karel over and over that his reasons for "racing" with a torn plantar were not smart. Come Kona, he would be sitting on the sidelines, regretting the decision of hobbling his way through IM Lake Placid - that is, if he could even finish the marathon. He would just be suffering and surviving until he could not tolerate the pain any longer. It was very difficult for him to see long-term but I kept reminding him that if he only competes in the swim and the bike, he will still have the opportunity to compete in Kona as he can kick-start the rehab as soon as he returns home from Placid.
Although we had many discussions during the 72 hours before the race (and Karel desperately hoping a miracle would heal his foot before the race), he finally made the right decision to DNF after the bike......after he packed his running shoes in his T2 bag and finally recognized that running was not a smart option.
Karel learned a lot from not racing with an injury. Karel is much better at thinking long-term and now he has the experience of a serious injury (with a positive ending) to help him make good future decisions with his body. I always believe that injuries teach us lessons - in sport and in life.
Well, here we are again....but with NO INJURY.
Instead, here we are, just a few weeks away from traveling back up to Ironman Lake Placid for Karel to race on the same race course as his first Ironman in 2013 (our first IM together) and on the same course that he did not finish on due to an injury back in 2015.
As an athlete, remember that the entire goal of training is to compete at your best. If you can not race at your best due to an injury, then your immediate goal is to heal yourself so that you can return to sport with a healthy and strong body.
It's always a tough call but be sure to think long-term. No race is "worth it."
And in case you were wondering, yes, Karel did end up racing in his first Ironman World Championship and he finished the race with no pain and a great marathon with minimal run training. He was diligent with his rehab therapy and was very patient in the process of letting his foot "heal" from July - October. After his torn plantar finally healed (it took about 11 months until it fully healed), he went on to have a phenomenal 2016 racing season by completing 3 Ironman's (and qualifying and racing Kona again), while running his fastest ever marathon off the bike (3:06 at IM Mont Tremblant - fastest male amateur run split).
An injury is a great teacher. Pay attention because it can teach you a lot if you listen!