A lot of my first time swim students wash up on my shore due to an injury that has temporarily ended them participating in the primary sport they love. “I’m just doing this for exercise until the doctor says I can go back to doing X.” The injuries come in all varieties of overuse and blunt force trauma including scoped, broken, and rebuilt knees, hips, and shoulders. In some cases, they are broader than just an injury like clotting disorders or heart issues, but the end effect is the same. Their doctor has banned them, in some cases permanently, from doing something they love and relegated them to the pool where they envision a lifetime of splashing around in endless little circles listening to bad music from the synchro team practicing in the deep end.
It’s usually at this point I ask them if they’ve ever thought of doing a triathlon? I’ve been accused of being “Triphoid Mary” in that I will find a way to ask everyone I meet “have you ever thought about doing a triathlon?” My motivation is not because I’m a coach but for the same reason I became a coach: triathlon offers such a variety of activity, well roundedness, and sense of community, it’s hard not to fall in love. There’s always something to work on and improve, and the wonderful byproducts of the whole process is a sense of accomplishment, ability to set and achieve goals, AND improved health and fitness. It also offers one more benefit: if you have a chronic injury, it offers the flexibility to structure your training program to minimize the impact of that injury while still staying active. Of course, you should always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, particularly if you have a chronic injury.
So what do you do if you have a chronic injury that is a limiter in one of the arenas of triathlon? Although each of the 3 disciplines of swim, bike, and run are vastly different, they do share the same cardiovascular system. Unlike single sports where your muscles wear out long before your heart and lungs, and you have to take time off to recover, with triathlon you get a fresh set of muscles every day as long as you make sure you don’t work on the same discipline two days in a row. This also has the awesome effect, if your goal is weight loss, of letting you torch a ton of extra calories daily. The well roundedness can also aid in injury prevention in the future by giving you flexibility and balanced muscle systems.
Because you’re improving your heart and lungs with each effort, this impacts every other activity you try that requires cardiovascular fitness. Even taking a winter off from swimming, once you get your water feel and balance back, you can usually step back into pretty quickly if you’ve kept up with your strength training, running, and cycling. Although nothing beats the sport specific muscle memory you develop by training a particular discipline diligently, there are still ways to get by with the minimums if you have to and succeed at triathlon at whatever distance from sprint to 140.6 that suits you best.
Below are a few of the more common chronic injuries and some suggestions for working around them:
• Can’t risk a fall on the bike – Computrainer rides and a few bike handling clinics for you.
• Can’t run further than 20 miles a week due to a bum joint – lots of cycling and swimming coupled with speed-focused running.
• Can’t take your heart rate above a certain level – lots of cycling and swimming with minimal run speed work for you, stick to long course races.
• Can’t stress your shoulder – review of swim technique for hip driven timing, with a strength training, cycling, and running emphasis.
Most canned plans take a broad swipe at making sure you have enough time at each discipline that you can survive your race. They don’t necessarily play to an athlete’s strengths or personal challenges because they don’t know what those are. They have the advantage of being cheap or free, but you’re paying for the plan by burning time working on things that you might not need to at the expense of things you do need to. For athletes with chronic injuries, canned plans can be even more daunting because they have to cut certain sections of the plan and have that nagging doubt they won’t be prepared when the cannon goes off or they quit part way through because they, against doctor’s orders, try to stick to a plan and re-injure themselves or struggle along in constant discomfort. Where coaches come in are they can look at a chronic injury and help you plan around it. Working with your coach and your doctor, you can still achieve your triathlon goal.