Dealing with illness & injury – Part 1

Injury and illness, these are the two words that can strike fear into the heart and mind of any triathlete. I wanted to write this 2-part article to help athletes make smarter training decisions when this happens.

It’s important to accept that as an athlete you are going to get ill at some point. How you choose to react when this happens is what you are in full control of. Typically age group triathletes train anything from 8-20 hours per week. This places a huge amount of stress on your body. This can weaken the immune system making you susceptible to picking up common illnesses like colds, sore throats, and chest infections.

These are some of the patterns I’ve witnessed over the last 17 years of coaching athletes:

  • Some years athletes rarely get ill, others are much more prone.
  • This can vary year to year with every athlete, some years are good years others are really bad.
  • The worst period seems to be between October – March during the European colder months.
  • Illness seems to be highest in those athletes with children or who work in office environments.
  • Travelling frequently on airplanes, tubes & trains increases the risk.
  • Athletes are particularly prone to illness in the lead up to big races and just afterwards.

There could be a whole variety of things that contribute to this – over training, not enough sleep, poor diet, poor training choices the list goes on. On the flip side of this I have seen athletes who do everything right frequently getting ill. Sometimes there just seems to be no set pattern, it just seems like bad luck.

If you do get ill it’s crucial to have a plan in place to help you deal with it effectively.  This should start with addressing the illness with a positive mindset and the question – how can I help myself get better? No amount of self-pity can speed up this process so be strong.

When symptoms appear it’s important to rest or try a lighter more gentle session, frequently I see athletes thrashing themselves one last time before they accept they are ill. If your symptoms get progressively worse after doing this then it’s definitely time to rest. Take solace from the fact that your route back to fitness will be quicker the sooner you decide to rest. Training while ill just leads you down a path of prolonged illness that you just can’t seem to shake.

During this period of illness you have to remain mentally strong and resolute, giving into the illness will only lead to self-pity, poor eating and a deeper sense of frustration. Your plan should prioritise quality sleep, rest, good nutrition choices and adequate fluid intake. You should also mentally let go of training for a while, enjoy some of the things that you always like to do but can’t do when training. Invest your energy fully in these – cook healthy food, watch films, plan your next race, read and relax.  Create your own personal list of things to do that will help comfort you during this period so that boredom doesn’t strike.

If you’ve been ill for a few days or a week you should take up to 3 days of lighter training before returning to normal training. Still be cautious until you feel strong again. Keep the intensity lower than what you were doing previously until you feel 100% confident that you are back to normal. A simple plan below could look like this:

  • Monday: start of illness – rest day
  • Tuesday: ill – rest day
  • Wednesday: ill – rest day
  • Thursday: start to feel better
  • Friday: ready to train – Turbo 20-30mins easy
  • Saturday:  Turbo 45mins easy
  • Sunday: Swim – 40 x 50m on 20 ri super easy
  • Monday: Resume normal training (still proceed cautiously)

The ideal first sessions back can be done on the turbo, it’s low impact and you can stay warm indoors. This is particularly important if your illness has affected your respiratory system. It is a much more gentle way to re-start training that your body will appreciate. All sessions during this period are at an easy effort level and single session days. Most importantly don’t dive back into full training and gently build each day until you feel your full health starting to return. I always tell my athletes when they feel ready to train to “take one more rest day” because most are tempted to come back too soon.

If you’ve been ill for a couple of weeks your body will be very weak, you will have also lost a lot of fitness. You might need to do 5-7 days of light training first. Be careful not to progress too far too soon, make a sensible judgment call day by day. Intensity should be avoided at all costs and you should only be doing single sessions during this period. For the first few days sessions should be between 20-30mins, by the end of the week you can progress to 1 hour.

The time I see athletes making the worst training decisions while ill is when they are building into big races. The pressure to perform and train is high and that can affect the decision making process. The key is not to panic, I’ve seen some of my athletes get ill in the final weeks leading into major races and still go on to set life time bests. When this happens all thoughts of the race need to be put on the back burner, regaining some kind of health is your priority. This will only come if you rest and keep resting until your symptoms start to subside. Be super cautious when you start to feel better by building with low volume, low intensity sessions. Resist the urge to cram in what you’ve missed at all costs. Just take confidence from knowing that fitness is already in there and has been deposited, you only need a body that is relatively healthy on race day to be able to tap right back into it.

The key message to take away is no matter what illness you’ve had just be sure to be very careful when coming back into training. You can’t rush your body and it will fight back if you do. Be sensible, have a plan and take a positive course of action. Hopefully then you will get back into what you love doing in the shortest amount of  time possible.