How to deal with injury or sickness


Injury and sickness is something every athlete is fearing and trying to avoid at all costs. I will talk a bit about the injury side first, then about sickness and then how to battle either of them like a champion. Regarding injury we are quite blessed in triathlon regarding sudden accidents except for maybe a bike crash or twisting your ankle. Compared to contact sports like football, triathlon is a safe sport due to little external contact from others (except for the occasional elbow in the swim leg – who doesn’t love those?!). Most injuries in triathlon are overuse issues that I believe to be easily avoidable. If your ego is bigger than your brain you will train through little niggles which act up more and more over time. You need to find the root of the issue ASAP and get it out of the way.

Some common causes for overuse injuries are:

  • Sudden increase in training volume

  • Sudden increase in training intensity (for example lots of hard track running, sprints on already tired legs)

  • Rapid increase in frequency of training units

  • Too early return to sports after injury (feeling of having to make up time and train hard from the start)

  • Bad technique in either of the sports (common in swimming with impingement in shoulder due for example lack of thoracic spine rotation)

  • Bad mobility of joints and muscles

  • Old equipment (such as old running shoes)

Sickness is a whole different story and can range from serious diseases to catching a flu. Sometimes faith has other plans for us and we cannot influence what you have to cope with like cancer. I am always amazed of the fortitude of athletes who fought through those extremely dark times and finish an IRONMAN the following year. In my mind, these are the real champions. Once you were strapped to a hospital bed for months and you have to learn how to walk again, finishing a hard four hour turbo trainer session seems like a walk in the park, so stop complaining.

Let’s focus on the more common sicknesses which interrupt your training from a week up to three weeks like a proper flu or cold. We are in the time of the year when cold weather and dark days are straining your immune system commonly causing vitamin D deficiency in most people by the time we reach January. Vitamin D has an important role within your immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria. It interacts with cells that fight off infection and there is strong evidence for the link with respiratory tract infections like colds, bronchitis and pneumonia. Other common symptoms are fatigue, tiredness, bone and low back pain, feeling depressed, impaired wound healing, hair loss, and muscle pain. Always consult a doctor for a blood test if you have severe symptoms. Some foods which are rich in vitamin D are salmon, hering, sardines, cod liver oil and canned tuna (take only once a week due to risk of toxins that can build up and cause serious health problems).

To sum up, in order to prevent sickness as much as possible we need to ensure that our immune system is as fit as it can be. Frequently smashing ourselves in training does not exactly help with that so nutrition and sleep becomes of even greater importance.

Here are some tips regarding nutrition and maintaining a strong immune system:

  • Add natural anti-inflammatories to your diet daily (such as kurkuma, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon and chilli)

  • Make sure to not be catabolic and lack calories daily. Replenish liquid and high-quality calories after training sessions so your body stays in balance.

  • Lowest hanging fruits first (see other blog post “How to avoid low mood and tiredness)

  • Wash hands frequently when people are sick around you or use hand sanitizer

  • Avoid close contact with sick people and public transport etc.

Now we come to the mind set how to deal with either injury or sickness. As mentioned before, sickness and injury can range from severe to minor issues but no matter which grade, a composed mind will always benefit you.

The mindset:

If you are an athlete or not, you need to get your mind into the right place. There is a great interview with the true basketball legend Kobe Bryant (check “Tedx talk kobe Bryant” on Youtube) where Kobe talks about his past injuries. Despite being one of the most successful basketball players that ever lived, he actually went through three major injuries including surgery three seasons in a row. I am sure most professional athletes would have thrown in the towel after season number two. He however came back strong after each one, although critics and coaches were writing him off a long time before that.

So how did he do it?

When coping with a traumatic experience such as an injury we run though a series of phases.

Common phases are:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining (“I would do anything to have things how they used to be” – avoidance of grief)

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

The man interviewing Kobe asked him what he did after he just caused his first severe injury at the most important moment of his season. He replied that he went through most of the stages that I just listed. Then the interviewer asked him in which time frame all of that happened, Kobe’s answer was: “in one night”. That is the difference between a champion and most of us. Most people spend the first month in denial, then add another month of anger before starting to get really depressed about it and then reach the point of acceptance. It is very easily said of course to act this way but think about it: what a giant waste of time to spend three months or more whining about what has happened and how you wanted it otherwise. What difference does it make that you do that and make everyone around you miserable while you are at it? Right, exactly none. Complete waste of time.

Kobe did the extreme, drive-thru version of the phases and that is one reason why he went back to play as soon as he did.

Essential components of a champions mindset to recover as quick as possible are:

  • Splitting the time to recover up in phases and focus only on one phase at a time, not think one day ahead even. These steps could be like Kobe’s: 1) get surgery 2) move your toes 3) learn to walk 4) seek a Physiotherapist and so forth.

  • Still behaving like an athlete and optimize recovery. Yes, I know you cannot swim or run or what so ever. But what can you do to aid your body in any way that you can. That can range from schedule your sleep pattern (something that easily goes south due to feeling upset) and plan nap times. Perfect your hydration and nutrition (you do not want to start gaining weight but you want high quality foods as well as enough protein etc.).

  • Stay as active and fit as you can. So you broke your leg and it is stuck in a cast for six weeks .That does not mean you need to watch every single series on Netflix. Get to work and erase your weaknesses. This can range from upper body & core strength in the gym, foam rolling and stretching to mental training and mediation. How great are you going to be if you can transform your bad mental state during a time of injury to a positive one? Just imagine how easy it will be to switch your mind to champion mode within a race once you have overcome that. Get it done!

These principles can be applied at any time and by using them you will feel like you are again in control of the situation. Something that is getting lost first once you experienced a traumatic sudden injury. You feel like you are not in control of your life. So, take the bull by the horns and think about everything that YOU CAN DO and not about what you cannot. Becoming a champion starts in the mind, not in the gym.

Become the unstoppable you,

Let’s go.

Cheers,

Matti

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