Being injured is a tough pill to swallow for any endurance athlete, especially if the ailment seems fairly minor. It’s a pain to take two weeks off from running because of a sprained ankle when you’re in the middle of a big training block, especially if, other than the ankle, you’re feeling fantastic. But rather than letting injury mess with your head, consider using it as a challenge and a chance to grow as an athlete. And don’t panic—just because you can’t run or cycle doesn’t mean you can’t train.
Having spent the past 10 years training and the first seven of those struggling with injury after injury, I’ve learned a few lessons about proper injury recovery—however annoying that may be—and about finding a healthy balance between endurance, strength and enjoying the ride. Andy Getzin, MD, a coach and triathlete, has had similar experiences and has coached countless others through the same issues. You’re not alone during insanity-inducing recovery time, and we’re here to get you through it:
1. Accept what you can’t change (even when it sucks).
If you’re anything like most athletes who train seriously—type A, highly motivated and hate the thought of skipping a workout—an injury can be nearly impossible to comprehend. But if your body needs to heal, it needs time off. That might mean taking time completely away from training. “You have to come to the realization that you need time off,” Getzin explains. “The reality is that if you are injured and keep pushing through it, it will get worse.”
Recovery, from both training and injury, is a natural, important part of improving in sport. It’s when your body makes adaptations and gets better, stronger and faster. Skipping recovery means you’re not going to see as much benefit from the training you’re doing.
However, not all injuries mean being glued to the couch for a few weeks. Most injuries Getzin sees from his endurance clients are low-risk overuse injuries, and those, he explains, will get better if you let them. That may simply mean scaling back your runs or rides, either in terms of time or intensity (or both).
There are some injuries that can’t be ignored, and that’s when an athlete should begin to seek alternative workouts. “If a runner has a stress fracture and keeps running, [the bone] could snap,” Getzin says. “But the good news is that if you do the recovery the way you’re supposed to, it will be a shorter time off due to injury.”
Listen to your body, and listen to your doctor. If you have any kind of actual bone issues—e.g., a stress fracture—you’ll need to modify your workouts to avoid putting any load on that bone. Taking time off of your specific sport doesn’t have to mean losing fitness—in fact, this is a great time to focus on alternative forms of cardio and strength training.
2. Determine if you should be off the road.
First of all, getting injured is a natural, but unfortunate, part of the training process. If you’re pushing yourself and striving to be better and faster, sadly, injuries come with the territory. “If you’re never getting injured, you’re not training hard enough,” Getzin says. “You’ve got to push your limits a bit.” That said, you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
“I would hope that the individual would start to sense when he’s getting a problem that’s not getting better with a bit of rest, and back down [the training] to fix it,” Getzin adds. So ask yourself—and your doctor—if your injury is just a sign that you need to back off but can still train, or if you need to take a break.
So how do you know if you should train through or respect the ailment with time off? “If the pain is getting progressive in workouts, if it’s increasing from workout to workout, that’s no good,” says Getzin. “Swelling is another good indicator of needing time off, as is a consistent location of pain. It’s one thing if your knee is sore one day, your hip is sore the next, but if it’s the same spot every day, that’s when it’s a problem.” And that’s when you should consider taking a few days off from your sport to let your body heal.
3. Try something new.
So, you’re off the bike, or unable to run for a few days or even a few weeks. That doesn’t mean your fitness needs to suffer. Sure, your 5K time might not improve if you can’t do your track workout, but you can still maintain your cardio fitness in the meantime.
For runners, Getzin immediately suggests the elliptical machine—for knee, foot and ankle injuries, this can be a great way to avoid pressure or much flexion in the knee, allowing you to recover while still keeping your heart rate up. You can do the same intervals you’d do on the road on the elliptical. And if that’s too boring, consider hopping in the pool for aqua jogging. The resistance of the water makes this a strength and aerobic workout that allows you to keep pressure entirely off of your feet and ankles. Sneaking in an actual swim workout, alternating swimming laps with jogging, can mix up your workout routine, allow you to hone a new skill and improve overall muscle tone.
Cyclists may be surprised that running can actually be a great way to train during injury. And if you’re a mountain bike or cyclo-cross racer, running can actually benefit your performance, not just keep fitness up. “I had a back injury after Ironman France a few years ago, and I found that I couldn’t ride but I could run pain-free,” Getzin says.
Admittedly, Getzin reminds us that: “Nothing will prepare you for cycling like cycling, nothing will prepare you for running like running, but at least you can maintain fitness and sanity as you heal.”
4. Consider seeking coaching help.
An injury may be a great time to consider finding a coach. Sure, you can’t get started on a serious training schedule right away, but the time off gives you the extra hours to research and interview prospective coaches. And once you find one, there are a few advantages to being coached during and after an injury.
As a coach, Getzin says one of the big things that he does is make the athlete do less. “Most athletes do a poor job at recovery, and it’s essential because it prevents injury and allows that next training load to get harder,” he explains.
If an injured athlete came to him—or one of his athletes is injured during training—Getzin rarely believes that the problem is caused by any one workout. “So many athletes say that one workout did it to them—‘I was fine before this run’—but it’s typically not just from one workout,” he explains. “Either you were putting too high of a load on yourself or not recovering enough from that particular load. I tend to look at the injury … as an imbalance somewhere.” And as a coach, he looks at that imbalance—whether it’s too many hours at too high a volume, or an actual imbalance in position on the bike or an awkward running gait—and works with the athlete to address it so injuries don’t keep happening.
5. Focus on your weaknesses.
If you’re a runner, an injury can be a great time to focus on your weaknesses. I’m not talking about your sprinting ability if you’re a distance guy. I’m talking about getting away from running completely. If your upper body is sorely lacking in the strength department, consider lifting weights. And every runner can benefit from taking time to focus on core strength and hip mobility.
“It’s essential that endurance athletes do core stability and strength work, but [most] don’t want to do it,” says Getzin. “A cyclist wants to ride, a runner wants to run. But I look at [the benefits of] strength [training] as allowing a person to successfully apply a higher training load without risking injury.”
So use this time while you are injured to protect yourself from problems down the road by establishing a serious core and strength routine. You may also find that the muscle you build helps improve cycling power and stamina; your running sprint will likely benefit as well.
6. Dial in your diet.
When you’re injured and your training is cut back, this is a golden opportunity to look at your diet. Are you getting enough veggies on a daily basis, or is fast food a staple in your food pyramid? If you’re not training for 15 hours a week, consider using some of that time to practice new cooking skills and sneaking more vegetables into each meal. And if you’re hoping to drop a few pounds, an injury can be a great time to cut down on calories without sacrificing proper fuel before and after training (just don’t cut too much, or you’ll slow the healing process).
This isn’t always the easiest task: Unfortunately, for those of us who train at high intensity or high volume, we’re used to eating … a lot. “Doctors have been giving the wrong message for a long time,” Getzin admits. “We’ve been telling people that the key to keeping weight down is exercise, but if you look at people eating whatever they want, exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss because people who exercise are hungrier and eat more. So if you’re used to training a lot and abruptly have to stop because of injury, you might take a while for your appetite to catch up. You might still be really hungry. But after a few weeks, it normalizes and you tend to get less hungry.”
And Getzin lowers his voice as he adds this final tip: “Here’s a big secret doctors don’t want to say: It’s OK to be hungry. Americans feel like we always have to have a full belly, but if you’re not training much, it’s fine to feel hungry sometimes. Don’t be miserable, and don’t stop eating to drop weight, but it’s not bad to feel hungry sometimes.”
7. Spend time with your family; focus on building relationships.
You might miss spending time outside while you’re in recovery mode. Instead of hiding indoors, use this time to get outside with your family and friends who don’t ride or run. If your injury isn’t too severe, you can even do the activity you love in small doses—with your kids, or with a nonriding or nonrunning partner. Take your 2-year-old on a ride and actually pedal along next to her in the neighborhood, or go on relaxing hikes with your unathletic boyfriend. For most of us, there’s someone in our lives who won’t normally exercise with us because we’re going too hard. This is your chance to reconnect with that person and actually enjoy the slower pace!
8. Use that training time to beef up your sleep schedule.
If you’ve cut your training volume down by several hours a week, put that time to good use and make sure you’re getting at least eight hours of sleep each night. You might even find that you feel the best with a bit more than eight hours—your body uses sleep to heal, and, as you recover from injury, that sleep becomes even more important.
9. Grow from this setback.
“As frustrating as [injury] is, if you can step away and intellectualize it a little bit, you can see how to make it a learning opportunity,” Getzin advises.
We get down on ourselves and frustrated for getting hurt. We get angry at our kids and our partners because we don’t have the usual stress release that training provides. But if we can take a positive spin on this unplanned downtime, we can grow from it.
Recovering is simple, yet seems complicated and terrifying. But it boils down to Getzin’s simplest advice to get healthy. You need to:
1. Listen to your body.
2. Have good nutrition, which includes eating all the right stuff and not too much of it.
3. Sleep hard.
There aren’t any shortcuts to recovery, but there are plenty of ways you can sabotage yourself if you’re not careful. So recover well, and remember: You’ll be out riding or running again soon!