It was three weeks until my first half-Ironman triathlon and I was a woman obsessed. I was eating, drinking and dreaming about my race 24/7 – even on our spring vacation to Dubai, where I rented a bike and headed out with the local roadies. We started early, 4:30 a.m., to beat the heat. The pace of the peloton was hot, and I was hanging off the back, barely keeping up. With 10 km to go, I was exhausted and my right leg was aching. Every pedal stroke was marred with pain, but I had no choice but to finish the ride or roast in the mid-morning sun. Once I cooled down, it was obvious that I had seriously injured my hamstring. Unable to walk but unwilling to admit defeat, I limped through the rest of my vacation and returned to Brussels to be diagnosed with a torn hamstring. Race dreams: shattered. Heart: broken. It took me a year to fully rehabilitate that injury, a year to analyze where I went wrong.
This story is mine but it is not unique. Injuries are part and parcel of sport, and it is difficult to know what to do when they happen to you. What we need is a game plan to fall back on if, and when, it happens to you.
Prevention, prevention, prevention!
The best way to maintain your health and fitness is to prevent injuries in the first place. Seems pretty obvious, I know, but this is easier said than done. So few of us take the time to prepare and repair our bodies for the activities that we do. Regardless of the sport, it is important to do a 5 to 10 minute warm-up. Mobilize the muscle groups with gentile stretches and deep belly breathing. This combination will prepare your body and your mind for the work that is to come. After your session, it is imperative to stretch all major muscle groups with particular attention to those that have worked the most. Drink plenty of water and eat a healthy diet to ensure that you recover quickly.
Pain! Now what?
The most important thing to remember is that you must respect the pain you feel and stop what you are doing. If you continue, the injury will only get worse and you will be out of action for longer. The treatment you receive within the first 24 hours will, to a large extent, dictate how quickly you recover. First priority: reduce swelling as it impedes healing. Rest, ice and compression are key tools to reducing inflammation. It is fine to take Ibuprofen to deal with pain and swelling, but remember this medication is masking the symptom of pain, not healing the injury itself. It is unadvisable to return to strenuous exercise until you are pain-free without the help of medication.
Seek expert advice from a sports doctor if your pain does not go away with rest and ice. For serious injuries, go directly to the emergency room. When you see the doctor, explain exactly what happened and then listen to the advice you are given.
Now that you are on the injured list you need to surround yourself with people who can help get you back onto the active roster. No, we aren’t professional athletes with access to a rehab team, but you can build your own scaled-down version. After all, nagging injuries detract from your overall sense of well being now and can pop up again down the road.
The key to “Team You” is you – make the time to rehabilitate your injury. Ask your doctor to recommend a sports physiotherapist. Recommendations from people who have had similar injuries are also excellent. Speak to your physio and listen carefully to the explanations of the rehab exercises you will be give. Make absolutely sure that you are performing the exercises correctly before you leave the clinic.
Finally, now is a perfect time to seek out a personal trainer with expertise in exercise therapy. In consultation with your physio, positive sessions with a trainer will help to combat injury-related frustration, turning time away from your sport into an opportunity to gain overall stability, strength and knowledge of how your body moves.
Light at the end of the tunnel
By taking care of your injury early and with expert help, you will cut down on the time you spend away from your favorite activities. When you are ready for your comeback, be cautious and build up duration, speed and power slowly. The last thing you want is to get injured again!
Being sidelined by pain is a nuisance, but with every injury comes the opportunity to learn more about your body. It is through these difficult moments that we become better, stronger and fitter athletes. Don’t believe me? Well, that blown up hamstring, now stronger than ever, carried me pain-free to a very strong half-Ironman finish just last month. And I have no intention of stopping now!
Patti Bruns is a personal trainer at Aspira Royal La Rasante. Contact Patti at email@example.com.