“I can’t do anything beyond an Olympic distance triathlon because I’m prone to injury.” I have heard this statement from multiple athletes and it always makes me furrow my brow and then ask a series of follow-up questions about their training behaviors. Anyone can accomplish these distances, if it really is their goal, given the drive, knowledge, and time. There can certainly be some bad luck that makes it take longer than originally planned, but no one is inherently prone to injury or illness. Below are the most common root causes and fixes to eliminate being “prone to injury.”
The first time you are stepping up your distance to something you’ve never done before, you shouldn’t change the volume or intensity by more than 10% a week. While this means it may take quite awhile to get to the volume you need to for your race, that just means planning a long enough training cycle to get you where you need to be. People that have raced a given distance before or have a huge base from years of training can step up their volume and intensity more quickly than this without risking an injury, but for first timers, follow the 10% rule.
Marathon, half ironman, and ironman distances are really, really far, just ask any of your non-triathlete friends. Although the human body can safely be adapted to go these distances and thrive, it’s not something you can do week in and week out. Periodized training is an incremental increase in volume followed by a taper that leaves you primed and ready for a race day, followed by adequate rest afterwards. Month in and month out of doing near-identical heavy volume work is not the best way to produce results. Neither is going out and doing a practice marathon the week before your real marathon.
This can be getting enough sleep each night and also making sure you take down time each macrocycle and down time each season. Most macrocycles follow the 2 or 3 weeks up rule followed by one week down. Your down week should be about the third the volume of your last up week and be very low intensity. If you don’t rest, your body will force you to rest by making you sick or giving you a stress fracture or pulled muscle. If you feel injury or illness coming on, take heed and take an extra rest day.
There are certainly things you can do that give you a repetitive use injury. If you are a chronic heel striker, you may be more prone to stress fractures. If you have poor swimming form or use shoulder driven timing without the corresponding shoulder girdle strength, you may end up with a shoulder injury. Lack of core strength can cause all sorts of balance problems in any of the three disciplines. A bad bike fit can lead to knee and hip pain. All of these a preventable via strength training, swim lessons, a run gait analysis, and a professional bike fit.
Triathletes burn a lot of calories. Although this changes according to where they are in their season and athletic career, harsh dieting can lead to both injury and illness. Let your body come into stasis slowly over time while eating healthy, natural foods. Studies have shown that trying to shed mass while doing high intensity work just leads to loss of muscle and no gain of power. If you’re trying to slim down, do so during base phase and do it cautiously. Avoid going off the deep end during the off season so you don’t have to shed weight once the season begins.
Aggravating a Chronic Injury
Triathlon is great for working around a chronic injury. See our take on it here. However, even with perfect biomechanics, some chronic injuries, especially those that required physical therapy to rehab, require ongoing rehab exercises to maintain a pain free lifestyle. You may need to work with a coach and your doctor to tailor a plan to avoid aggravating your chronic injury.
Accidents do happen. However, if you’re overtired, they are more likely to happen. If you are new to the bike, you may really have to concentrate to keep your focus and be safe. Following the 10% rule and getting adequate rest is doubly important. Take a bike handling course, traffic safety course, or ride with a group. You race outdoors, so doing trainer rides exclusively is not going to give you the skills you need for the sport, it just makes it more likely for you to have an accident race day. On your long runs, stay on even ground or avoid trails near the end of your runs. Avoid blasting music which may make you zone out and not hear traffic or other pedestrians. Make sure your equipment is well maintained so it doesn’t fail at an inopportune time (it’s a good activity for a down week when you have more time).